by Edel Griffith, Adesto Technologies
The technology business rarely stays still as new technologies emerge, and newer versions supersede older products. Semiconductor devices have been around for over half-a-century now, and the pace of technological change is, if anything, increasing. While this pace of innovation brings many benefits in terms of enhanced functionality and increased performance, as suppliers manage their product portfolios, some products are made obsolete – or end-of-life (EOL) – and this can cause significant challenges.
Different manufacturers handle the EOL process in different ways, and this can also depend upon the product involved. In some cases, the migration from one generation to another can be entirely seamless with long notice periods; last time buy opportunities and form/fit/function replacements. In other situations, changes to the product may be necessary, and this can have a significant impact on designs that are in mass production.
The semiconductor business has seen a lot of consolidation, with companies acquiring adjacent technologies and competitors. A typical outcome of this is a product line rationalization as the combined business seeks to control costs and drive economies of scale. This can be one of the most challenging situations from an EOL perspective, as the product migrations are rarely seamless.
Depending on the market sector that the equipment manufacturer operates in, the impact of a change to the bill of materials (BOM) will vary. In areas such as consumer electronics and some industrial applications, a change may mean a minor redesign and additional product qualification. While this introduces costs and risks, the impact is far lower than in areas such as medical or military/aerospace, where the end product will have agency-issued safety approvals which will have to be re-applied for, significantly increasing costs and possibly introducing a hiatus in production.
Other options to continue production are available, including attempting to purchase sufficient quantities of the EOL product from obsolescent component brokers – although increased prices can mean manufacturer’s profit margins disappearing. This approach can be fraught with danger due to issues such as possible counterfeiting of devices. Multi-sourcing key devices on a BOM is another approach. However, this is not always possible and will lengthen the design and qualification timescales. It also requires the management of more vendors.
Given all of these challenges, managing the supply chain over the entire product lifetime of the final design is an essential part of most development projects these days. Various tools exist to check the lifetime status of components, and inquiries can be made directly with manufacturers. This process can be repeated regularly during the lifetime of the final design to ensure that you have as much notice as possible to address any situations that may arise. However, there remain concerns here – especially with larger corporations. For example, the front-line support personnel may well not be aware of impending mergers or acquisitions, which could change a product’s status within a few months, leaving you with a supply problem.
Consider the ASIC
One of the best ways to achieve a high level of control over your supply chain is to consider using custom ASIC devices. While many companies shy away from this due to the perceived high cost, it is now an affordable option. The very latest leading-edge processes indeed remain expensive, but since older technologies have been fully depreciated and capacity will exist as companies move to advanced processes, costs will be significantly lower. The performance and flexibility of these more mature processes are often more than adequate for many applications.
There are other benefits to owning your own custom ASIC – the design is optimized to your application with exactly the functionality and performance you need. You also own the design, meaning that it will not go obsolete and, as the design is not public, your intellectual property is fully protected. As a custom ASIC can integrate many functions into one device, the BOM component count and supplier base are also reduced, further saving costs.
Some may be concerned that a particular process technology may become obsolete, causing a need to re-design the ASIC onto a more advanced process. While this is theoretically possible, examples of this are extremely rare. Foundries have often invested over $1bn in the process, and they want to keep those lines running as long as possible to maximize the return. Even in the unlikely event that a foundry shuts down a process, the design remains yours – securely held by your design partner (such as Adesto) and can be migrated to another foundry relatively easily.
EOL is a continuous challenge for many companies, and many are now turning to custom ASICs to secure their supply chain and intellectual property while optimizing their designs and reducing overall costs.
About the author
Edel Griffith is the Technical Marketing Manager in the ASIC & IP Division of Adesto Technologies. She has over 20 years of experience in the semiconductor industry in both R&D and technical Marketing roles. She has a Degree in Applied Physics and Electronics from the National University of Ireland, Galway and an Executive Diploma in Strategic Digital Marketing from Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland.