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A collective blog from the experts in measurement and design, discussing the latest tools for circuit-level modeling through system verification for general RF/microwave, 4G and 5G communications and aerospace/defense applications. Learn about these applications and the EDA simulation software, test and measurement equipment and techniques behind state-of-the-art RF, microwave and high speed design.

Extending the Life of Test Systems that Support Long-term Programs

Jim Curran, Keysight Technologies, Inc. (formerly Agilent Technologies electronic measurement business)

July 2, 2015

At the beginning of every new product program, tremendous amounts of time, attention and money go into defining and integrating the required test system. The system is used to test the new products, ensuring that they function at the required levels and remain highly productive. The system is also expected to last for the life of the program.

Carefully designed test systems help ensure high quality results and maximum throughput. Over time, drifting test results can affect quality, and equipment downtime result in costly delays. In later years, changes in parts availability and vendor support capabilities add to the challenges.

Fortunately, managers can mitigate these risks and keep their programs running by working with an experienced solution partner. As an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), Keysight offers efficient and effective alternatives that can extend the life of test systems and ensure that the individual instruments are meeting their warranted specifications.

Examples include Keysight’s Extended Service Period (ESP) solutions for calibration and repair. These embody the company’s commitment to our customers’ installed base of older HP, Agilent and Keysight equipment. Through standard and tailored ESP solutions, Keysight helps our customers keep long-term programs running until they’re ready to make the transition to new technology.

ESP solutions are part of a bigger initiative called Keysight Instrument Lifecycle Solutions (ILS). Best expressed as a commitment to operational continuity, these solutions address the service requirements that span a customer’s product lifecycle (Figure 1). Through these solutions, Keysight helps ensure system longevity, starting from the initial date of purchase and extending well into the future.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Instrument Lifecycle Solutions address service requirements for the instruments customer’s use to support long-term programs.

Going around the figure, Warranty Period solutions include our standard three-year warranty as well as the opportunity to ensure that level of coverage for up to 10 years. Standard Service Period (SSP) solutions ensure ongoing performance, post-warranty, by delivering Keysight-quality service—in calibration and repair—that optimizes the customer’s budget and enhances instrument uptime. Extended Service Period solutions cover essential equipment after product manufacturing ends, giving our customers more time to make a seamless transition to new technology.

Understanding the OEM’s dilemma

There is an inescapable paradox in the support of aging test equipment. Early in the system lifecycle, OEMs can provide strong support; however, new instruments typically require much less support than older equipment. The need for support increases as instruments age, but an OEM’s support capabilities typically decline due to discontinuance of manufacturing, reduced parts supply and fading expertise (Figure 1).

Figure 2
Figure 2
. There is often an out-of-phase relationship between an OEM’s ability to provide support and a long-term program’s need for that support.

The underlying cause is the natural lifecycle of any commercial product: introduction, growth, maturity and decline (Figure 2). Every product progresses at a different rate, driven by outside factors: adoption by customers, competition from other manufacturers, overall economic conditions, and so on. As demand declines, OEMs often introduce new products to replace aging models, and this requires new investments in manufacturing, parts and expertise.

Figure 3
Figure 3
. The traditional product-support lifecycle periods (bottom bar) follow the demand lifecycle (red curve).

As each product ages, the OEM makes tradeoffs and decisions about the allocation of the scarce resources dedicated to manufacturing and support. Sustaining an older product consumes resources that could be used to develop new products based on newer technologies (Figure 3).

Figure 4
Figure 4
. As the older product declines, the newer one grows, requiring new investments in manufacturing lines, parts and warehouse space.

One reason to shift resources is the expectation of higher returns on the money invested in a new product. Astute OEMs do this in a manner that meets the needs of existing customers by providing compatibility modes, long lead times for notification of discontinuance, and extended service capabilities.

The most challenging scenario is an aerospace/defense (A/D) program, which may be expected to live for 15 to 25 years. In general, the duration of a commercial product’s lifecycle is much shorter than that of an A/D program (Figure 4). This creates a timing problem: in many cases, the instruments in a test system have passed their peak demand and are beginning to decline as the A/D program is reaching its peak. As the A/D program crests and then noses over into a gradual decline, the next generation of OEM products is in the growth phase (refer back to Figure 3).

Figure 5
Figure 5
. The other timing problem is the offset between the decline of commercial products and the growth and long decline of an aerospace/defense system.

Parts availability is the other major factor. An instrument, such as a microwave signal analyzer, contains thousands of individual parts produced by hundreds of vendors. Each part goes through its own lifecycle, from introduction to discontinuance. External forces such as changes in government regulations (e.g., RoHS compliance) may also affect parts availability. Parts manufacturers, as independent businesses, also go through a natural lifecycle of growth and decline.

Extending the Life of a Test System

All of the preceding provides context—but it is still possible to create an effective strategy that adds years to the usable life of a test system. The best chance to plan and execute this strategy is at the time of the original purchase. If this opportunity has passed, there is still time while the instruments remain in production. Even if the instruments are out of production, there are ways to extend system life.

At the initial purchase (Warranty Period)

As noted above, A/D systems may be expected to last 15 years or longer. When defining a test system and evaluating the available instruments, several key questions are worth considering:

How long has the OEM been in business?

   o   What’s the likelihood they’ll be around 20 years from now?

How well do they listen to your needs?

   o   Do they respond with suggestions that make sense from a technical perspective?

   o   Do their suggestions make sense from a business perspective?

Can the OEM support your program over the long term by supplying needed system components?

   o   Do they offer cost-effective assurance plans and maintenance services?

   o   Do they have a service infrastructure designed for present and future needs?

What is the real cost of doing business with the supplier—now and through the life of the test system?

   o   What is the duration of its standard warranty?

The greater the number of favorable answers, the greater the likelihood a vendor will be able to ensure that a system will operate at peak performance well into the future.

During production and while replacements are still available (SSP)

As long as an instrument is in production, the OEM’s support capabilities are relatively high. This is a good time to adopt best practices such as utilizing high-quality services and developing contingency plans for the post-manufacturing phase.

Solid contingency planning starts with a key assumption: OEM support capabilities will diminish with time. It’s best to work directly with the OEM to determine long-term plans and needs. For example, it’s wise to regularly monitor product lifecycles and assess the value of making lifetime buys of all crucial components. The OEM should be willing to help ensure a sufficient inventory of parts or assemblies to avoid critical failures.

This is also the best time to identify critical instruments and purchase an optimum number of spares based on statistical data such as the mean time between failures. Creating and maintaining intra- and inter-company asset lists may reveal available spares and also prevent unnecessary scrapping of still-needed instruments.

After products are no longer manufactured (ESP)

Eventually, an organization will have to deal with the support and maintenance of instruments that are out of production. At that point, three options are available: OEM services, third-party services and self-maintenance.

While the best choice depends on the business and technical specifics of the situation, the OEM will usually provide higher quality service than a third-party provider or in-house self-maintenance staff. One reason: providing excellent service ensures customer satisfaction and, being pragmatic, helps protect the company’s reputation. Also, because they are aware of need for longer-term support, some OEMs have planned for this on a product-by-product basis. This requires an investment in the necessary infrastructure: staff, equipment, test systems and supply chain of genuine OEM parts.

Another option is to purchase second-hand equipment to use as replacements for failed instruments. This can be useful if the following items are true about the used equipment:

·    Any necessary repairs have been performed by factory-trained technicians

·    When needed, only genuine OEM parts were used

·    After any repairs, the instrument received a full calibration and all necessary adjustments

Similar to the suggestions offered earlier, we recommend purchasing used equipment that has been fully refurbished by the OEM.

Conclusion

 As our customers assess service alternatives, they can be confident in Keysight’s ability to ensure their operational continuity. We know that it takes time to find the right equipment and a trusted solution partner. Once a test system is up and running, the responsible organization needs confidence that it will keep going. That’s why we’re offering Instrument Lifecycle Solutions, including our Extended Service Period solutions. 

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