Unlike consumer devices, medical, military, and industrial products typically have very long product life cycles of five to 10+ years. Long life cycles are important because device manufacturers in these markets are slow to migrate to next generation product, new devices, and/or technology. The slow migration arises from a number of factors:
- High design and development costs of unique requirement devices
- High product unit and production costs
- High costs to qualify and certify
- Often inaccessible deployment locations
After product development and completion, just the certification processes required before deployment can take year or more. For example, medical type I, II, and III devices can take up to five years to complete certification. And the military adoption process is long, protracted, and driven by a complex contract and award process. The military also has strict standards to meet emissions and elaborate test processes to prove ruggedness, which can also take an extended period of time. Industrial products can have special certifications required, such as meeting ATEX guidelines for intrinsic safety – e.g. for the mining and petroleum industry. The aviation industry has specific requirements from the FAA for electronic devices and may utilizes ARINC standards. These certifications add to the product development cost and lengthen the time to market, making long product life cycles even more important. Early product failures or changes in constituent components can have high costs that can be avoided or minimized with upfront planning.
Product design and component selection is integral to creating a successful long-life product. During the early product design process it is critical to choose components, power supplies, displays, sub-assemblies, and single board computers with long product life cycles. Only upfront diligence can ensure that the new product can be built and manufactured for 5-7 years reliably. Components need to be chosen that are in the introduction, growth, or maturity phase of the standardized life cycle curve for electronic components. Companies can use a product like Silicon Expert to scrub the new bill of materials (BOM) and verify the suitability for use in a new product. This includes all levels of components- processors, passives, active devices, power supplies, and even displays. As with integrated circuits (ICs), there are specific LCD and display manufacturers that offer long product life cycles targeted for the industrial and embedded marketplaces. Whether a device is field serviced or factory repaired, parts within these products must be available. Support plans must be developed early within the design phase to facilitate the selection of long life components where possible, or the bulk purchase of components when they approach end of product life. Failure to consider this upfront can lead to exorbitant product support costs long term, as expected product changes can trigger costly retesting.
In addition to part selection, finding the right single board computer, is critical to a long life design. There are plenty of websites offering various single board computers, but no way to reliably know just how long the product will be available. A second issue is the business model of the supplier: Some companies have designed products specifically for large volume production (in the tens of thousands). These large volume suppliers offer very low prices, but not the critical product support (hardware, software, mechanical, systems, factory support) necessary for small to medium companies to successfully develop and launch a new product to market. Other companies are leveraging large early adapter customers to keep pricing low, but when their large clients move forward with the next generation design, the current product will suddenly go end-of-life. These companies typically only have product life cycles of 2-4 years and do not offer regular end-of-life notices or dependable last time buy options. And thus, navigating the single board computer marketplace can be difficult. Here are some considerations when choosing a single board computer intended for long product life support:
- Select an embedded processor from a manufacturer with a history of long time component availability in industrial-type markets. For example, Freescale and Texas Instruments support the industrial embedded and automotive markets with very long product life cycles (7-10+ years). Automotive grade processors have the added bonus of very wide temperature ranges which can enhance reliability in extreme environments. Intel has an embedded line of processors with a 5 year guarantee, allowing at least a couple years of good production. (Companies more focused on commercial markets, such as NVidia and Qualcomm, have a history of very short product life cycles.)
- Work with a single board computer (SBC) vendor with a history of long product life cycles for their past single board computers. They will be stay abreast of parts obsolesce, which is pivotal in avoiding design changes that could potentially require product changes and costly recertification.
- Consider a modified COTS embedded design, where a COTS single board computer design is modified to meet specific product requirements. Unneeded features from a COTS SBC are removed. What would be a two-board stack of a COTS computer module plus carrier may be combined into a single board, eliminating connectors. Modified COTS can reduce per unit cost, final assembly and test, and can reliably move a product to market in half the time, at better than half the cost, and at a very low risk. Long term product life cycle support is also optimized, since the feature-targeted design eliminates unnecessary parts which could lower reliability just by their presence and create repair issues when problems arise.