We need to talk about obsolescence

Uncover your ears. We need to talk.

Obsolescence isn’t a subject people want to talk about. It’s not exciting, intriguing or controversial. It gets ignored. But like a familiar but ageing relative, a machine can easily slip into a state of decline. Before you know it, there’s no way back. Production is on hold. You’re late with orders, losing contracts, losing customers.

Yes, that’s a doom-laden scenario. We know you’d rather believe the equipment you invested in will go on forever, performing just as it did when it was shiny and new.

It’s easy to see why people get fired up by new stuff. Our brains are wired by evolution to be curious and seek out the things that boost our chance of survival. In business, it’s the same. We look for a competitive advantage in a machine with a higher output rate, quicker set up times, more precision. We invest but before long, the excitement tails off. We search for the next new thing.

The critical factor that gets ignored

If we’re smart, over the years, we keep analysing the return from our investments. We sit in boardrooms looking at KPIs and benchmarks. We might justify delaying capital expenditure based on measures such as overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). While this is understandable, indeed, sensible, a critical factor is often overlooked. Equipment may be functioning pretty much as it always has, but within it, components may be becoming obsolete. If an obsolete component fails, there can be a considerable amount of unplanned downtime with all the attendant issues of delayed orders and unfulfilled contracts. 

Most components, these days, tend to be fairly robust. In general terms, that’s a good thing, but it can give rise to an undue sense of complacency. If something is prone to breakdown. we keep spares and have the engineer’s number in our phone. If it’s reliable, we don’t even think about it.

We should.

Out of date and out of stock

Right now, there’s a big issue with processor chips. With worldwide supply issues, you may have to wait weeks for a new one. As an example, the Siemens S5 Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) had a large share of the market. It originally came out in 1979, and many customers still have them. Two years ago, Siemen’s ended their 10-year support of the product and now, if you’re desperate, you might find one on eBay. That would only be a temporary solution. Just like the PLCs, the engineers who understand them are ageing and leaving the workplace.

Worked to death?

Businesses don’t think about obsolescence for several reasons. Ignorance, as we’ve just mentioned is one. Perhaps more alarming are those operations where the risks are understood but not addressed. There’s a drive for productivity which means time isn’t factored in for servicing, maintenance or upgrades. Machines are effectively flogged until a catastrophic breakdown occurs. In the hunt for profit, they expose themselves to the risk of serious losses – both financially and to their reputation.

The world has shrunk. Companies no longer use national boundaries to determine where to source or produce components. Plants in the UK are fighting for work in a truly global economy and efficiency is more important than ever. Unplanned downtime kills business efficiency. It’s as simple as that.

That’s why we need to talk about obsolescence. We need to minimise the chance of breakdowns, avoid the need for firefighting and ensure that production efficiency is maintained. Businesses that know, believe or suspect they have a potential problem must be brave enough to face up to it and, if necessary, fix it. Businesses that don’t even think about their ageing equipment, should make it a priority to do so.

We need to talk about obsolescence. We need to do it now.