Enginursday: The Dreaded End of Life

It could be a QFN Packaged IC, your favorite potato chip flavor, or that great style of clothes hanger you like. The dreaded EOL or End Of Life. The period when, for one reason or another, a company decides to stop production of a product. It’s a very common occurrence in the electronics industry. We face it fairly regularly, and sadly it’s difficult for us to shield you as the customer from it affecting you.

Retired Product Page from SparkFun.com

Throwing stones in a glass house, huh?

Why Does It Happen?

There’s a multitude of reasons why things go EOL. Sales dwindle, technology advances, parts in the assembly go EOL themselves. But overall, the company has to come to a difficult conclusion to end sales of a product. SparkFun has to come to this conclusion on a weekly basis.

We’ll get a notice that a part is no longer available (although, if we’re lucky, we get notice ahead of time – more about that shortly) or sales figures show poor performance, or a number of other factors will occur and we need to make a decision. We usually have two options: come up with a replacement or better/newer version, or retire the product. We try to exhaust our options before reaching EOL, but if it isn’t going to work out, companies have no other choice. So the next time you go to order that great product, you’re met with a terrible EOL message.

Ways Companies Lessen the Blow

For most people, not being able to get a product isn’t the end of the world. However, when you move to OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) or business-to-business markets, it very well could be. So companies have found ways to allow their high-volume, high-usage customers to prepare for the transition to EOL. These are called “EOL” or “Last Time Buy” notices. The company sends out a notice to its customers that the production of the product in question will be stopping. The customer is then given a last-time buy date. It’s a deadline for placing their last orders. Once the deadline arrives, the production line fills those orders, then ceases production of the part.

Another early warning that has become more common is the “not recommended for new designs.” This can often be found on the product page on the manufacturer’s website. It explains that this part isn’t slated for EOL at this point, but it’s on track to be. Usually this statement will include a replacement part to use in your design.

All of this is great, but most people aren’t in the OEM electronics market. For us, these warnings don’t happen, so we’re left to other devices. While the problem will have to eventually be remedied with a different product or part, there are some ways to deal with an EOL part problem that needs a quicker remedy.

What Can Be Done?

Replacement is the ultimate solution to this problem, but it’s not always that easy. Newer parts may be a lot different from the previous version – different pins, different shape, or different power requirements, among other issues. It could take weeks or months to alter your design to work with the new part. Depending on different factors, a solution might be needed sooner. We’ve been in this situation and have found a few possible quick fixes:

1. Ask the Manufacturer

This seems pretty self-explanatory, but more times than not, I’ve skipped this step, and it could have immediately helped. Chances are you’re not the only one looking for the now EOL part, so there’s a good chance they’ve fielded the question already and can point you toward someone who might have some stock left.

2. Distributors

Usually people go to the manufacturer first for parts. So chances are, if stock is still available, it would be with their distributor network. It’s a bit of a pain to have to search multiple locations, but if the situation is dire enough, it might be worthwhile.

3. Competitors

This one is a long shot, but on occasion you’re able to find a pin-compatible, footprint-compatible part or IC from a competitor. Usually the best way to go about this is search for the function of the part in question rather than a part number. Again, this one rarely works out, but it’s an important step before the next option.

4. The Secondary Market

If all else has failed, you can always try the secondary market. Be warned, though; this brings a minefield of potential issues. Wholesalers like eBay are somewhat trustworthy, but there’s always the potential for things to go wrong. To make things more difficult, returns are rarely offered in this forum. It was a situation like this that led to SparkFun buying counterfeit ICs by mistake.

5. Realize an Opportunity

Just because the sales don’t make sense for a larger company doesn’t mean the market doesn’t exist. If you have the resources to do so, producing the product yourself is a great way to fix the problem you and others are having and make some money while doing it.

EOL is an unavoidable issue. As much as I wish it weren’t the case, every product, part and component has a life span associated with it. But utilizing the resources provided can make this fact of life much easier to handle.

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