COTS in space: Addressing obsolescence, part I

source: Intelligent aerospace news

January 19, 2018
By Dan Friedlander, Retired following 44 years in component engineering

A component becomes obsolete when the original component manufacturer stops marketing it. Electrical, electronic, and electromechanical (EEE) components obsolescence hits the military, space, and commercial market. In the military, massive EEE components obsolescence occurred due in part to manufacturers’ decisions to leave or reduce activities in this market. For reasons not immediately understood, the military often uses phrase “diminishing manufacturing sources” rather than the term “obsolescence”.

It must be mentioned that the components already in space orbit do not need obsolescence-related attention for maintenance or repair purposes (at least for the one shot launched, not maintainable systems). Nevertheless, attention shall be paid to follow-up designs.

In the commercial market, due to the high dynamics in technological development and due to consumer demand, the availability period of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components is often shortened.

As the space and military technology community insert more open architectures and COTS technology, the challenge of managing the obsolescence that comes with COTS will only become more difficult.

Candidate COTS components for space applications constitute only one subset of the COTS population, used mainly in consumer electronics. Consequently, the potential user of COTS for space should carefully assess the mechanism of obsolescence in context with space applications. Obsolescence, by no means, should be considered a “showstopper” of any application; it is an obstacle to be overcome.

This article addresses the need for obsolescence issue understanding as an obstacle in a series of obstacles to be overcome to go for the inevitable use of selected COTS in space applications.

The obsolescence mechanism
A component becomes obsolete when it is no longer manufactured, either because demand has dropped to low enough levels that it is not practical for manufacturers to continue to make it, or because the materials, processes, or technologies necessary to produce it are no longer available.

That means that a component becomes obsolete not because is less reliable, less qualified, reached the wear out phase or other technical reason. Often, products are replaced not because they have broken but because they have fallen out of style, overrun by innovation.

There is a strong argument used often by the MIL/space party, emphasizing the correct difference between COTS products life (two to five years) vs. military system service life (25 to 50 years at platform level).

The above argument is intended to question the suitability and the availability of COTS components use in long-term applications (e.g., space and military). Those figures help to dramatize their claim.

There is a high likelihood of a life-cycle mismatch between parts and products, in both directions. When a COTS product becomes obsolete, it does not necessarily mean that its content (components) is obsolete, as well. The same component used in the subject obsolete or “outdated” product may be used in other still-available products. In some cases, they may be using some average values to dramatize their claim.

Moreover, I doubt whether those promoting the idea that product life reflects the components’ life have full visibility on the relevant components list. Also, claims regarding observed failures prove poor reliability. Often, even the maintenance service people, such as maintenance technicians, do not need to be familiar with the identity of the relevant individual components. They just replace the entire product or an entire subsystem. The term “failure analysis” is not in their lexicon. Consequently, root of the failure cannot be attributed to COTS electronic components or workmanship or…..

The majority of the consumers do not give in to the serial new COTS products offers; they continue to use the “old obsolete product” successfully for many years. Even in the consumer electronics domain, the newer product designs do not start from scratch. One does not need to resort to major design changes (vs. the old version) to raise the appetite of the customers to buy the new product and throw out the old one.

It is not clear how it can be concluded from product life figures that selected COTS are not suitable for use in long-term applications. In view of the global electronic components market status, who can claim that the MIL/space availability security is better than the COTS one and will stay as-is? With MIL/space components having a very small share of the total component market, their future is far from assured.

The availability parameter is definitely considered critical in the component/component manufacturer selection process for space applications. The one who makes the obsolescence business decision is the component manufacturer.

Following is the mechanism leading to obsolescence in the dominant consumer electronics, with obvious impact on space/military.

The consumer’s hunger for more functionality and ease of operation pushes R&D staffs to innovate, making their innovations a primary competitive factor. At the same time, consumer demand requires that the latest and best advancements be integrated into devices as rapidly as possible. The component manufacturer, benefiting from the technological development and motivated businesswise, produces new advanced products. Obsolescence is in large part a response to consumer demand for a continual flow of electronic products that offer new capabilities and features. Additionally, the consistent upgrading of products helps stimulate the economy.

The above mechanism is a combination of technology, business and human social behavior. Hopefully, it is a fleeting trend! The negative effect of the above is disposal of the old products and contribution to the flourishing counterfeit “industry.”

Planned obsolescence
Planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence is a business strategy in which the obsolescence of a product is designed into it from its conception. The rationale behind the strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases.

There are arguments about the planned obsolescence being myth or reality. The fact is that countries (like France) legislated laws punishing those found practicing it.

Anyway, often, people argue that COTS components are designed for short life, according to their target application. This is fallacy meant to downgrade COTS. There are some solid counter arguments against artificial life shortening at component level, including:

  • COTS, as per their definition, are intended for sell to the general public.
  • The component manufacturer usually does not know where and how its products are used.
  • The component manufacturer’s reputation is at stake.
  • In many cases, different grades of the same component are built using identical die and/or package.

Saying that, it does not mean that all COTS produced by all manufacturers are the same quality and reliability.

Obsolescence mitigation
Governments and industries are more and more aware of obsolescence problems. Many reactive and proactive mitigation actions have been developed to manage the obsolescence issue. It is beyond the scope of this article to address in detail the available mitigation methods, life-cycle forecasting models, experts and companies specialized in obsolescence management, obsolescence management standards, etc.

I will confine to the lessons learned during my multi-year dealing with EEE components for space and military applications, including extensive use of space- and military-grade COTS.

Strong EEE components standardization (components types reduction).
Standardization is a very efficient way to deal with obsolescence. The component/component manufacturer selection is a multidisciplinary, complex process, led by component engineering.

without the information provided by the traditional mil regime the component/component manufacturer selection process for COTS has to rely very heavily on pragmatic engineering judgment.

The selection activity is synchronized with the designers’ needs. However, the designer is freed from dealing with the various aspects of the component selection. Free creativity (nice to have) in using any component found in the market, is not compatible with the present global developments.

The above practiced methodology did not lead to obsolescence immunity. However, absolutely and compared to similar companies, the obsolescence hit has been efficiently minimized.

Obsolescence management
In parallel, use of commercially available obsolescence database allowed Standard and Projects (in development and in manufacturing) Parts Lists (BOMs) continuous monitoring for obsolescence detection. The database has been used also in the component/component manufacturer selection phase. Detecting obsolescence on time is followed by a decision what to do (last time buy, bridge buy, redesign etc.).

Strategic level management requires planning for obsolescence (this is not the term “planned obsolescence”, but it is planning to avoid “obsolescence”. Using the output of the above-mentioned component/component manufacturer selection process, systems must be designed for obsolescence. For example, prefer using field-programmable gate array (FPGA)-based technologies to make systems simpler. Procedures are in place for redesign decision making.

Procurement strategy
As a small volume space/military buyer, the company tries (within the obvious limitations) to align itself with preferred, best-in-class suppliers. A constant relative small demand is often appreciated by component manufacturers vs. a variable larger demand. A good information flow between customer and supplier is an efficient way of anticipating obsolescence developments.

Obsolescence is a solvable problem for systems with a long product life. The problem has to be addressed and managed. Methodologies and models for obsolescence are ultimately formed around strategies forming a three-tiered solution:

  • Reactive management strategy methods: no action is taken until obsolescence occurs.
  • Pro-active management strategy methods: components availability status monitoring before they actually become obsolete and aim to prevent obsolescence driven risks.
  • Strategic management methods: includes both reactive and proactive strategies as well as strategic level managerial actions.

Obsolescence in space applications
Space projects are not immune to obsolescence of components, regardless of their used grades (MIL, space, COTS). Obviously, not everything said above for terrestrial applications is applicable to space applications. Obsolescence has to be addressed and managed.

Many electronic components have life cycles that are shorter than the lifecycle of the product they are in. Obsolescence results in high sustainment costs for long field life systems; e.g., avionics and military systems. Those systems are called sustainment dominated systems. Fortunately, for the foreseen future, the space systems (except the reusable ones) are not sustainment dominated systems.

One-shot space systems dominate the space applications. Consequently, no hardware maintenance is possible for such an already launched system, removing the post launch obsolescence threat.

Saying that, the above-mentioned non-applicability of the obsolescence does not apply to the pre-launch terrestrial activities. Like in military, designs are kept as long as possible. Not managing obsolescence may hit follow-up projects due to lack of availability. A procurement strategy and a technology refreshment strategy is essential.

The electronic components procurement strategy for space applications has to be tailored to the exclusive space requirements. Detailing the electronic components procurement strategy for space applications is not within the scope of this article.


  • EEE components obsolescence hits the military, space, and commercial market.
  • The obsolescence process is an uncontrolled process outside of the customer’s control, to be mitigated within the customer’s sphere of influence.
  • In most of the cases obsolescence is a business decision by the relevant component manufacturer and not an indicator of poor quality/reliability.
  • All systems need to be designed, produced and maintained with the mindset that obsolescence is a critical, costly parameter.
  • Obsolescence has to be addressed and managed.
  • Management of obsolescence is reactive, proactive, strategic.
  • Institutional level obsolescence awareness and organizational culture for obsolescence is required.
  • Long-term agreements with suppliers are considered to be one of the most effective ways to prevent obsolescence.
  • The obsolescence mechanism is a combination of technology, business and human social behavior.
  • The obsolescence, should not be considered a “showstopper ” of use of selected COTS in space applications. It is an obstacle to be overcome.


Author biography
The author, Dan Friedlander, graduated Engineering School/Tel Aviv University with a degree in physics (1965-1969). He has 44 years of experience in Component Engineering at MBT/Israeli Aerospace Industries (1969 to 2013), as Head of Components Engineering. As such, he was responsible for all aspects of EEE components – including policymaking, standardization at corporate level, approval, etc. – for military and space applications. Now retired, Friedlander is an industry consultancy (2013 to present).

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