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Trapped on Technology’s Trailing Edge

We’re paying too much to deal with obsolete electronic parts

13 min read
Photo of a man front of a tall shelf of boxes.

Not Grandma's Attic: An employee fills an order for a discontinued semiconductor product at a Rochester Electronics distribution center in Newburyport, Mass.

Photo: Bob O’Connor

Keeping aging systems on their feet is a daunting and resource-intensive task. The U.S. Air Force, for example, continually wages an internal battle to keep its weapons systems in fighting form. One enormous and often overlooked factor contributing to the early demise of military technologies is the problem of unavailable parts. Take the B-2 Spirit, a stealth bomber that first flew in 1989: by 1996, significant components of the aircraft's defensive management system, just one small part of its electronics, were obsolete. Repairing the system entailed either redesigning a few circuit boards and replacing other obsolete integrated circuits for US $21 million, as the B-2 program officers chose to do, or spending $54 million to have the original contractor replace the whole system. The electronics, in essence, were fine—they just couldn't easily be fixed if even the slightest thing went wrong.

Although mundane in its simplicity, the inevitable depletion of crucial components as systems age has sweeping, potentially life-threatening consequences. At the very least, the quest for an obsolete part can escalate into an unexpected, budget-busting expense. Electronics obsolescence—also known as DMSMS, for diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortages—is a huge problem for designers who build systems that must last longer than the next cycle of technology. For instance, by the time the U.S. Navy began installing a new sonar system in surface ships in 2002, more than 70 percent of the system's electronic parts were no longer being made. And it's not just the military: commercial airplanes, communications systems, and amusement-park rides must all be designed around this problem, or the failure of one obsolete electronic part can easily balloon into a much larger system failure.

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