Managing component obsolescence in military aircraft

For companies operating in the electronics manufacturing industry, component obsolescence has been an ongoing concern for a number of years. In a very competitive arena with a relentless demand for smaller, faster and generally better performance, obsolescence issues often arise from design qualified components becoming quickly transcended by new and improved designs and ‘next generation’ technology development.

As new components replace existing parts, it’s crucial that companies proactively manage obsolescence challenges to ensure components and product remain readily available and compliant with customer requirements. This is often achieved by minor modification of product design to accommodate modern equivalent parts  or developing alternative supply chain routes to secure continuity of supply; both effective solutions that allow companies to mitigate the threat of product unavailability. However, in some applications  these are not suitable options, driving  innovative and alternative solutions.

Albacom, a leading technology company specialising in the design and manufacture of high voltage power supply units  for the defence and aviation industry, has developed a number of solutions to overcome the obsolescence challenges it has faced in the last 30 years. With a long-standing history in the defence sector, Albacom manufactures parts for military aircraft that are in service for decades. As product forms part of an initially qualified system, Albacom’s customers expect ongoing product availability and support for the lifespan of their aircraft;  simply sourcing new suppliers is not a straightforward or suitable solution.

An important component required for military aircraft is an avionics display. Display technology has developed significantly in recent years, with LCD flat panels replacing cathode ray rube (CRT) displays across a huge spectrum of consumer applications, including televisions and computers. We now even see sophisticated colour graphics display panels incorporated into manifold applications such as car dashboards and kitchen appliances.

Although it has been possible to replace some avionic CRT applications with modern LCDs, such as in flight decks of commercial aircraft, it has not been possible in more demanding military operations such as head-up displays in fighter aircraft. In the defence industry, CRTs remain the preferred option alongside the associated requirement for a miniaturised, rugged high-voltage power supply, providing electrode voltages up to 20kV or higher. This can create issues for companies such as Albacom who must find sustainable ways to continue sourcing these mature components.

For avionic displays, Albacom designs and manufactures specialised high-voltage power supplies, which are predominantly utilised in military applications and are generally bespoke  to specific customer-defined requirements. Once placed in service, the designs cannot be altered which places demands not only on the electrical characteristics of the parts, but also on the mechanical dimensions and temperature capabilities of each component. As a result, it is challenging, and occasionally impossible, to find suitable alternative parts without compromising other aspects of the product design. This is compounded by a relatively low volume demand for high-voltage parts as these applications become less common and are increasingly viewed as outdated solutions when compared to the consumer electronics industry. Being able to source the required components for its high-voltage power supplies is crucial to Albacom’s operations, and the company has had to develop new ways to manage the reduced availability of these specialised parts, such as capacitors, precision potential divider resistors and magnetic components (transformers), from an ever-decreasing range of suppliers.

Transformers and other magnetic components are critical to the design of any electrical power supply and are at the heart of power converter designs. The company’s CRT display power supplies utilise a high-frequency resonant power converter to produce the required high voltage outputs from the low voltage DC prime supplies, and the electrical and mechanical characteristics of this high frequency transformer is critical to the design.

For passive components such as capacitors and resistors, it has often been possible to manage the problems by selecting more modern, equivalent  parts with similar technical specifications. On occasion, rigorous testing regimes has allowed Albacom to offer commercially specified parts instead of released ‘military qualified’ components, without compromising the performance or the reliability of the products.

However, Albacom has also taken somewhat more radical steps to ensure sustainable supply of its required parts.

In recent years, Albacom’s long-term manufacturing supplier of encapsulated high voltage transformers withdrew from low-volume sectors of the marketplace. Whilst it was possible to source a new supplier for some of the magnetic components, it proved more difficult to identify a supplier that would also provide form, fit and function replacements for the most demanding components.

To mitigate any further issues with sourcing appropriate suppliers, Albacom made the decision to take full control of technical standards, quality and part availability by establishing in-house design and manufacturing capabilities for high-voltage vacuum encapsulated transformers. This involved recruiting the relevant design engineering capability to allow the company to also recruit a design engineer to lead design activity and guide the implementation of Albacom’s manufacturing facilities. This  custom facility ensures Albacom can manufacture bespoke solutions that prolong the lifetime of its customers’ military aircraft.

Although this may be viewed as an extreme solution by some, the alternative may have involved discontinuing a number of product lines or withdrawing from specific market sectors, which would have significantly impacted the company’s operations and its customers.

In an ever evolving and demanding electronics manufacturing sector, Albacom has successfully demonstrated that companies must be willing to diversify and proactively develop innovative and effective solutions to combat and manage the costly,  complex and potentially catastrophic challenges that  component obsolescence presents.

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