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Hardware Companies Owe Engineers Better End-of-Life Support

December 21, 2018 by Biljana Ognenova

The availability of smartphones, computers, vehicles, and other modern technology has exponentially increased over the last decade. However, the lifespan of these devices isn't what it should be. Why are hardware companies failing to create better end-of-life expectation for everyday tech?

With as many as 2.5 billion smartphones in use by 2019, each with an average lifespan of two to three years, by 2022, we will be looking at 3,500 million tonnes of waste — just from obsolete smartphones.

Smartphones are just a tiny piece in the puzzle of products going into the trash bin due to technological innovation and market demands — two key factors that drive differing levels of end-of-life support.

Vehicles, for instance, have a 10-year long lifecycle, but they still must be disposed at some point for a number of reasons, first and foremost because of security and energy efficiency. For illustration purposes, the end-of-life for vehicles generates between 7 and 8 million tonnes of waste in the EU only.

When it comes to even more specific electrical engineering components, the situation is similarly grim.

End-of-Life Support: 2 Conflicting Perspectives

This disposal discipline is not the only problem of expired products. From the user’s point of view, 10 years seem like a nice long-term investment, but from the perspective of companies that need to provide end-of-life support to products with diminishing value, 10 years can seem like an eternity.

Rapid technological changes, emerging customer desires, and richer features provided by competitors push manufacturers into limiting the hardware lifespan by forecasting product lifecycles. Struggling with exponential technological progress, hardware companies are on a perpetual hamster’s wheel, determining just how much value their products provide and pondering when to kill them without losing customers.

For end users, buying new equipment can provoke security, cost, legal, and accounting issues. Staying with the old after expiration date raises questions about compatibility and replacement parts. Sometimes, it’s easier for customers to upgrade and get a new version of the product than suffer the risks of failing parts and high maintenance costs. Keeping obsolete equipment may not even be a choice, as asset management regulations impose hardware replacement within a certain period of time.

Most product policies include an end-of-life date in the foreseeable future. But how long needs to be the “long enough” end-of-life support for everyone included in the game?

A manufacturer would typically include at least six to 12 months notice prior to ending the support of hardware. However, take a careful look in most T&C documents and warranties, and you’ll almost inevitably run into a clause which, “under specific circumstances,” reserves the right for the manufacturer end product support without sticking to the proposed end-of-life date.

EE work station

Image courtesy of Unsplash. 

In the flood of competing companies, as well as the legal perplexity of shared support responsibilities among a network of product providers, resellers, third-party vendors, and end users, engineers don’t have it easy. As high-end consultants specialized in a concrete product, they need to deal with the practical reverberation of these technical and legal conundrums. What choice do they have within the limits of these conflicting perspectives?

Customers’ Word: We Need Better End-of-Life Support

To keep engineers happy, a company that needs to decide on ending a product usually offers an upgrade or replacement or, in the worst-case scenario, recommends a third party to provide support for the outdated product. Customers expect tools and knowledge to walk through the change with ease. Reasonable end-of-life notice and honest information are the least a company can provide. But this is not nearly enough.

Thinking about the engineer’s hardware environment is critical before retiring a product, which means putting yourself in the engineer’s shoes by testing a real product replacement.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

A common tendency for manufacturers is to incentivize replacements instead of extending end-of-life support. Guided by internal economic needs for rebalancing resources, moving customers to the latest versions, and discontinuing products that don’t pay for themselves, companies economize on support costs.

Caught between two fires, companies need to design with product longevity in mind in order to please engineers, as well as maintain the company needs for autophagy by removing dysfunctional, obsolete products.

Common Objections of End Users Toward Hardware Replacement

Despite the economic rationale for hardware replacement, end-user budgets collapse under the weight of continuous product renewal. There is increasing resistance to seasonal hardware shopping. Plenty of engineers have these five common complaints:

  1. “The cost of the new product version is ridiculously expensive. Spare parts are a rip-off. We need to think of compatibility, testing, migration, and recertifying our equipment. We need internal approval from senior management and an auditor’s permit that the new hardware will work within the existing configuration.”
  2. “If we get the new hardware, it won’t work with the existing software. We will have to make software modifications, which carries additional costs.“
  3. “We’ll stick to the old equipment until the last minute, even with the risk of it failing without end-of-life support. If there is no reason to replace a perfectly fine piece of hardware, we won’t.”
  4. “Our CEO is nitpicky about purchasing new equipment. We need to present a strong business case to get the expenditure approved. We’d rather get hardware with a longer shelf life in the first place.”
  5. “When we calculate how much will it cost for our business if the old kit failed, and how much will it cost to replace it, the scales are typically in favour of acquiring long-lasting hardware.”

It is obvious that, apart from being duty officers for hearing customers’ desires, suggestions, and complaints, as well as integrating them as improvements next time they design a product, companies must also consider their internal survival needs.

However, we are living in a customer-centric environment, and what customers have to say matters. Many end users choose to go for better end-of-life support simply because it helps them remove the majority of the concerns from the above list.

When an engineer has access to a strict lifecycle management policy, they are more likely to adopt a fastidious approach in how much they are willing to pay for new versions, replacements, and upgrades.

Therefore, when designing with extended end-of-life support for engineers and makers in mind, companies carry the accountability to respond to engineers and the need for help from their own company departments, such as sales, manufacturing, and operations.

It is a circular feedback loop, one that pays off in the long run and gradually, as they factor in end-of-life support in each stage of hardware design, including preliminary production designs, schemes and diagrams, prototypes, and product certifications.

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