Enginursday: The Dreaded End of Life

All good things must come to an end, especially the availability of the component or product you need.

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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.


Comments 12 comments

  • More than 30 years ago, I was working for a chip maker, and we had one clearly obsolete part that we had been trying to kill off for years. We’d started with “Not recommended for new designs” in gray across each page of the data sheet, and gotten to “OBSOLETE” in big, bold, black letters so that you literally could not read the data (not to mention the sales force trying to kill it), but the volume of sales just kept going up, even though there were faster, fewer part count, less expensive solutions available. Finally, the mask shop let us know that the rubylith masters (!) for it were only going to be good for one more set of reticles (from which the actual masks were made). When I left the company, they were trying to decide amongst three choices: (1) hire someone who still had the obsolete equipment to do a new set of rubylith for us, (2) transfer the design to the (then) modern CAD system, going to a (then) modern process and do a die-shrink at the same time (more dies per wafer means lower cost to manufacture), or (3) just kill the part. I never did hear which way they went, as I left for “greener pastures”.

    At my next company I found out that there were boards in the then-current product line that had had to be re-designed 7 different times because critical parts were no longer available.

    • Happened to think of one thing to add: I’ve been a customer of Digi-Key since the early 1970s. In recent years they’ve started sending e-mails when a part I’ve ordered (at least within the last few years), even “quantity 1”, telling me when it’s gone EOL. I’d guess about 1/3 of them it’s because the “non-RoHS” version is being dropped (by the manufacturer) in favor of of the “RoHS compliant” version. OK, the next time it’s going to be just a tad bit harder to solder. My leaded solder will still work, even though it means my hobby project isn’t saleable in the E.U., as if there was any chance someone in France or Greece would want to buy my prototype.

  • I just want you folks to know I appreciated the transparency of these posts and the conversations they sometimes generate. While I don’t have anything of substance on this subject, my comment is that facilitating this exchange of information is part of SparkFun’s added value to me as a customer. Kudos.

  • There is a very popular ham radio construction project that has been around since the early 2000’s. (The Pic-a-Star DSP transceiver). The Analog Devices DSP processor is almost EOL (AD still lists it as “active” though it does NOT appear in their parameterized search, but can be found via a direct part number search. The part doesn’t seem to be stocked by anyone in the package used by the author of the project, but IS available in a similar package). The Codec chip IS beyond EOL and only available from shady part vendors that hang out on ebay. A few years ago I managed to find the processor from a US supplier on ebay (cheaper than I could have gotten it from DIgikey who had stock back then). I lucked out finding two of the Codec chips (which had gone EOL before I had found out about the project) from a supplier in China with 100% good ebay feedback, and the parts were genuine AD. Interest in Picastar is still high, but at some point someone is going to have to substitute a different code compatible AD processor with a different pinout (and re-layout the boards), and write a driver to use a currently available Codec …. if the project is to continue to be built.

  • Carefull, stating “Wholesalers like eBay are somewhat trustworthy” isn’t quite accurate. eBay isn’t a wholesaler, it is a purchasing/selling facilitator. Maybe better language might have been “Wholesalers like who are found on eBay are somewhat trustworthy”.

  • Interesting that you would show that exact part as your example of EOL, I recently had to change an old design that uses the MMA7361 :) Oh I grumbled and moaned and didn’t want to change the PCB, but I did…and the new accelerometer is actually way better. So EOL can sometimes be a blunt-force way to keep improving your design ;)

    • The breakout was one of my first designs here, I use it as an example more times than not.

  • The worst part about EOL is when there isn’t a new product that does what you need it to. Instead you are left having to completely redesign or abandon a design.

    The second worse part is when you look at example or recommended circuits for a part not EOL, and the parts it uses are EOL. I’ve run into this multiple times, and figuring out how to change things often takes several calls and/or visits to an application engineer, and then some testing. And as testing implies, it might not work. This adds time, expense, and hassle to the development process.

    • It can be quite the rabbit hole. Due to how google search works, you can get directed to a product page of ours that requires clicking through 3 other product pages to finally get to the current revision.

      • SparkFun has done a great job and clearly marking and updating their projects. I applaud you and all of your efforts. It’s companies like TI, who provide reference materials and schematics, that are really bad about this. They update the site to say EOL, but everything that relies on that part isn’t updated.

        I applaud SparkFun and their commitment to good and accurate documentation.

        • We try very hard to keep up-to-date with everything (and have greatly improved over the last few years), but our customers also help out a great deal by pointing out the things we may miss. One of the many upsides of open-source :)

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