Obsolescence Management in the Military

Post By: Tom Rowse On: 02-01-2020 - Military

Obsolescence can be something of a dirty word, where it implies that manufactured materials are designed to fail. In fact, planned obsolescence (such as might be designed into a domestic appliance) is just one aspect of this complex subject, which also includes both technical and functional obsolescence. In our ever-advancing world of technology, it is an unfortunate fact that much technological material is obsolete even before it is put in place, and before it ever has time to become functionally obsolete. This situation has given rise to the concept of Obsolescence Management, which is a process so detailed in itself that it now falls under an international standard of governance, IEC 62402:2019.

Obsolete products are those which may still be functional, but are technically out of date and no longer listed in the manufacturer's catalogue. Obsolescent products are those which are likely to become obsolete in the near future, sometimes even before they are commissioned. In the military environment, this problem becomes more critical. Military equipment is expensive and intended for a long life, but in effect many of its contributory elements may be superseded even before the production phase. In addition, military standards are far more stringent than those required for commercial products, so the monitoring and management of potentially obsolete equipment is crucial.

Obsolescence management in the military

Obsolescence management helps to mitigate the impact of outdated parts by constant monitoring, and directed purchasing such as lifetime or last-time buys. It can be difficult, sometimes even impossible, to source original components when they are superseded by new products, or require replacement because of breakdown or malfunction. At Rowse we can offer help, using our military parts finder tool to source outdated or hard-to-find parts.

Obsolescence management in the military is further complicated by the differing levels and expectations of its equipment. Complex systems such as ships, aircraft and missile arrays are expected to last up to ten times longer than their functional components, demanding a huge replacement inventory. Regulatory compliance complicates the situation further, since all components must be approved before installation. If a part is obsolete and must be substituted, the entire system might have to undergo re-testing and certification.

Obsolescence management is even more critical in the military, because it can happen at any point in a component’s life. This particularly applies to electronic components, which have a relatively short lifespan in comparison to hardware and other major parts, but a long lead time to deliver. Such items can change so quickly that they are obsolete even while the project is still in the design phase, requiring a constant turn-over of updated products to keep the commissioning on track.

COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf)

For some products there are cost-effective commercial alternatives (COTS) to sourcing an obsolete military part. The problem with these solutions is that the parts are not specifically designed as military-grade products, and may not perform to military standards. Such parts may fall down on compliance in areas such as electrical and temperature tolerances, and will not hold up to the demands of military usage and lifetime.

Another approach is to factor obsolescence management into the design process, so that COTS design engineers work together with manufacturers in the planning stages. In this scenario, suppliers would be contracted to carry out obsolescence prediction studies, and to update the status of component obsolescence regularly. Similar to predictive maintenance, component obsolescence would be anticipated and prepared for.

Some of the COTS solutions depend on the size of the project, with a wider user base allowing for greater design input. Smaller projects could alternatively be designed on a more open architecture permitting modular component replacement, so that compliance might be simplified. As more and more design infrastructure is taking place in a virtual environment using cloud or edge computing, such concepts as digital twins may make obsolescence management in the military a much simpler process in the future.

Additive manufacturing

A more recent, and perhaps more radical solution may be provided by advancements in additive manufacturing (AM). Several research programmes have already been set up to investigate this innovative technique in parts production, which relies on 3D printing. Starting out as a type of metal powder, the compound is melted in progressive layers using a laser, and can then be potentially used to print any shape or configuration of parts, in a wide range of different materials.

This looks very promising for military applications, since the process employs extremely resistant yet normally difficult-to-manipulate materials, such as the outstandingly durable diamond composite being tested in Sweden. In theory, this technique offers a relatively simple solution.In practice, AM could give rise to further insoluble problems in relation to safety, regulatory compliance and the legal issues involved in reproduction of existing patented items. There is already a long lead-in required for newly fabricated parts, and the applicable regulations could take years to formulate. It's also unclear whether AM would offer any benefits to non-mechanical components such as electronics.

Obsolescence management in the military: the holistic approach

Obsolescence applies to a wide range of components, including mechanical, electrical, electronic and software, as well as skills, so a solution which addresses only one of these areas is not going to help the overall problem. This is why many design engineers are looking at a holistic approach covering the entire life cycle of a given system.

For example, in defence there are six phases where obsolescence may occur, at any point and for any part. This is often called the CADMID cycle:

  • Concept
  • Assessment
  • Demonstration
  • Manufacture
  • In-service
  • Disposal

To manage obsolescence throughout the life of any military project, therefore, a holistic approach must be implemented very early on. As with the COTS solution, a proactive approach to obsolescence management is founded on careful planning and constant monitoring, to prevent failures rather than reacting to them. Predictive maintenance then allows military manufacturers to source replacement parts in a timely and convenient manner, thus minimising unplanned downtime.

This is where Rowse can help, with our quick and easy NSN Parts searching system, providing support and experience in obsolescence management.

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