Managing obsolescence

4 July 2017

Ian Blackman gives an insight into some of the challenges facing the nuclear sector.

The evolution of good obsolescence management practice began more than 20 years ago in the UK with the Ministry of Defence and British Telecom and in the USA within the defence and space industries.

These sectors recognised the changes in the market for electronics, where former big users were being overtaken by volume consumers such as the desktop computer and, later, mobile phone technology.

Component manufacturers began to shrink product ranges. They also withdrew from designing new products where they had to prepare for harsh environments, which meant long design gestation and tight safety and regulation constraints.

Back then, managing obsolescence was typically a process in which a designer reacted to a known unavailability or the imminent notice of unavailability.

High-reliability sectors such as railways, oil and gas, and nuclear soon joined the sectors that had to plan for component obsolescence. Proactive obsolescence became a recognised discipline, in which component users used commercial obsolescence prediction tools or communication links with vendors to predict end of life and manage replacement of
individual parts or redesign sub-systems or even complete systems.

In 2007 IEC 62402 – Obsolescence Management – Application Guide was created by a working group for various industry sectors including the UK nuclear industry.

This standard has been adopted widely throughout the world.

The guide recommended:

  • undertaking proactive obsolescence;
  • applying risk management to the likely impact of such obsolescence;
  • writing obsolescence management plans as part of through-life engineering planning;
  • seeking executive leadership of the discipline.

The nuclear industry shares many risks with other sectors but also has some unique problems.

The nuclear industry is highly regulated in the UK. Each facility is operated under a Nuclear Site Licence issued under
the Nuclear Installations Act 1965. This framework for regulation sets the standard for management of assets, and the Office for Nuclear Regulation monitors compliance. Similar arrangements exist globally, and one of the impacts of this level of regulation is that design, construction and commissioning of nuclear facilities can take many years. Substantiating (or qualifying) equipment used in safety applications requires significant investment in the equipment throughout the life of the asset. To ensure it remains available takes a combination of maintenance, asset management, equipment reliability programmes and obsolescence management.


Early obsolescence management concentrated on semiconductors and electronic components. It quickly expanded to electro-mechanical items such as relays and switches and passive items such as connectors, resistors and capacitors.

Nuclear users also have an interest in the long-term availability of components and subsystems beyond electronic and electrical items. This includes pumps, valves, motors, actuators and other mechanical items. The nuclear sector must engage with trusted suppliers able to find parts no longer in production. Stocks may be still available in the supply chain, but specialised sourcing agents will often be needed to find a product that ceased manufacture many years ago. It is essential to seek fully traceable parts and establish component checks to ensure the parts located are not counterfeit and have not been recovered from used equipment.

Many aftermarket specialists can manufacture obsolete parts under licence agreements with the original component manufacturers. Small-quantity component manufacture can be costly, but the costs are usually less than evaluation, testing, qualification and integration-testing of alternatives. 

Environmental legislation

In recent years powerful environmental legislation has made it more important to manage and recognise the materials used in manufacturing. REACH & RoHS legislation particularly have placed an increased load on the obsolescence management team.

The proliferation of national schemes has also increased the complexity for anyone who has to buy compliant parts. The commercial tools used to predict component obsolescence can sometimes help identify material composition but often time-consuming direct communication with the manufacturer is necessary. The nuclear sector may be affected by post-Brexit interpretation of these European regulations and it has already been said that the UK will need to manage its own REACH scheme. Obsolescence management practitioners will need to be vigilant over changes to legislation that will affect the availability of goods and materials, both in the EU and the UK.

Infrastructure items

The nuclear industry differs from product- based sectors, as the asset being managed is the plant and not a deliverable product where the list of parts and materials are the area of focus. In product-based cultures the infrastructure tends to be managed less well than in the nuclear sector – if at all – and is concentrated on design tools, mechanical tooling and configuration management data. Qualifying systems, subsystems and components is costly and good asset management ensures the best return on this outlay. Good obsolescence management ensures that longer term availability is understood, and any risks mitigated.

Nuclear facilities have vast PLC and computer systems providing essential plant control. The IEC guide 62402 encourages the assessment of obsolescence management risk in infrastructure but few industry vendors actively support these sub-system needs. Very recently, a few companies have begun to promote their expertise in reconditioned systems, spares and locating older systems. The nuclear sector uses ISO55001 for asset management and this standard integrates well with obsolescence management arrangements.

Engineering and software support

All the long-term support areas have identified concerns over the availability of skilled engineers and their age. Hardware engineers with analogue design experience are becoming hard to find and attract a premium salary. Meanwhile, there is particular concern over the maintenance of old software using older languages that are unfamiliar to recent graduates.

All the long-term support sectors pay a premium to get old software supported and are applying modern standards and guidance such as IEC 61508 and sector specific standards when developing and documenting software based safety systems.

The development of the IIOM

In 2015, the International Institute of Obsolescence Management was formed from the Component Obsolescence Group. This organisation is a worldwide group of experienced obsolescence practitioners and expert companies. More than 240 companies participate and a community of more than 400 engineers share best practice, discuss topical issues and meet regularly to hear the latest developments in the discipline. It has ambitious plans for expansion into other countries and establishing the first professional qualifications.

Current IIOM members include AWE, Sellafield Ltd, Babcock, EDF Energy, Cavendish Nuclear and many members of their supply chains that offer assembly or component supply. Nuclear sector members can network with obsolescence practitioners within their own and other sectors to discuss everyday issues, best practice, tool adoption or executive strategy. Nuclear companies are often members of other International Nuclear Utilities Obsolescence Groups such as EUNOG in Europe and NUOG in the USA and Canada.

The International Institute of Obsolescence Management, from its roots in obsolescence management of electronic and other components, now supports manufacturers, service providers and obsolescence practitioners from across industry. It is holding its 2nd International Conference and Exhibition in Bristol, England on 20-22 June 2017.

A one-day workshop on 20 June launches the event. The workshop is entitled “Obsolescence Management Challenges within the New Servitisation Landscape”. Research suggests that manufacturers are changing focus, moving from supply of products to building revenue streams from supplying products as services. For the nuclear industry this cultural change is already familiar, but for many others the journey has just started. 

Ian Blackman is Technical Manager at the International Institute of Obsolescence Management ( To register for the conference, visit 

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