Sustaining often decades-long semiconductor supplies for military and aerospace electronics remains an ever-steeper uphill struggle. Dealing with the daunting challenges for secure continuity of key electronic component supply without compromising quality and/or incurring excessive price premiums needs an entirely fresh business approach.
The reasons for change are clear. There are platforms in service now that have by far exceeded their estimated or scheduled lifetime. Perhaps the most visible case in point is the USAF B-52 strategic bomber. American taxpayers continue receiving a great return on their original 1950s military investment. It may seem hard to believe, but this aircraft has been in service for over half a century and is likely to be in operation for at least another 30 years.
This means that a project that was initially supposed to have a 30- to 50-year life cycle will have exceeded 80 years by the time it is grounded. The B-52 is just one of many similar military and commercial examples of exceptional system service longevity driving the need for continuing electronic systems support.
Looking at more current challenges, many semiconductors designed into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will have already generated end-of-life notices even before entering full service. It’s going to get worse. Here’s why:
It‘s estimated that 3 percent of the global pool of electronic components is becoming obsolete each month. On a long-term defense project, typically 30 to 50 percent of the semiconductor products become obsolete before the program is even commissioned. This is surely a sobering thought for any designer preparing to spec a new system, especially if they’re working on a military or aerospace project that may take several years to deliver and then be in service for decades afterward.
Obsolescence mitigation (OM) continues as a reactive and corrective effort by military/aerospace electronics systems contractors to overcome the relatively short-term commercial availability of essential components needed for long-term product support.
The very word "mitigation" quite accurately connotes only a partial fix to the component supply chain problem. Breaking out the oars and rowing like crazy may keep you from going over the falls. However, avoiding the waterfall in the first place is far more pragmatic.
Our industry needs to take a new approach to managing the effects of semiconductor obsolescence. The approach required must address platforms and systems being developed today as well as those already in service. A recent UK Ministry of Defense paper on technology strategy put it quite well:
Our task is to anticipate, prepare and meet the forthcoming challenges by being highly innovative, agile and flexible in our approach to defense science and technology based R&D. This must be complemented by rapid exploitation to yield military advantage with an ever increasing tempo.
When the semiconductor industry eliminates diminishing manufacturing supply, you eliminate the whiplash effect of obsolescence mitigation. OM is broken. Let’s fix it.
— Joe Bronson is Director of Business Development at e2v Aerospace & Defense, Sunnyvale, Calif. He was previously president of Sanmina-SCI Corp. (Nasdaq: SANM), a leading electronics contract manufacturer.