My pool pump broke. And if you bear with me a moment, I’ll explain what this has to do with electronics.
Two years ago I bought an above-ground pool: the entire investment – pool, pump/filter system, installation etc. – was several thousand dollars. In my family, that’s a significant chunk of change. We spent another couple of thousand on a deck.
About 4 weeks ago – just around the time I agreed to host 25 people for a surprise 50th birthday party for my husband – the pump began to make a screeching noise. I called the retailer, which is also the manufacturer, and found that:
- They do not warrantee their products beyond 1 season.
- They do not stock spare parts locally.
- They no longer carried the 1.5 horsepower (hp) motor on the pump because they now make a 2 hp motor. Even if they did make the 1.5, they wouldn’t fix the pump. I’d have to take it to a machine shop.
- They won’t order a replacement pump by phone -- I’d have to drive to the store to order it and if I was lucky, it will be in the store within two weeks. They won’t install it; I’d have to do it myself or hope I could find a pool service company that is not crazy busy in early July.
So I just hung up on the store clerk.
Next stop: the yellow pages/Google. I left messages for 5 pool-service providers. One week passes: no calls.
So I called a second pool retailer. They said detach the pump, bring it down and they’ll try to fix it. The pump weighs about 50+ lbs. and although I’m pretty strong, I’m 52 and the thing is really heavy. Nonetheless, I hump the pump to the store, about 12 miles away.
They do not carry or service that brand. Sorry, ma’am.
So I transport the pump back home, and by now my pool is looking nasty, so I try to hook up old pump unsuccessfully and water spurts everywhere. At this point I cry.
Now, back to the yellow pages/Google. This time, I connect with a pool supply wholesale distributor -- an organization that answered its phone and genuinely tried to help me. They referred me to a pool service company that I called and e-mailed. They responded within 20 minutes. Through a series of communications, I found my pump vendor not only doesn’t support its products, it builds them so that no other vendor is compatible. In short, I was no longer looking at replacing a motor/pump – I was replacing a whole filter system to the tune of $600 – plus labor.
After the pool-service company, which I had not spent a single dollar with so far, listened to my story and reviewed photographs of my pump situation, they determined they could buy me a 1.5 hp pump and retrofit it to my existing filter system. They could be there in 3 days -- a comfortable margin before the party.
So, you ask, what does this have to do with electronics?
There’s this sneaky little thing in the industry known as obsolescence or end-of-life (EOL). It’s when a component maker stops making a product for various reasons. For an OEM, this always creates a dilemma: if you’ve designed this component into your equipment, and your product has a lifespan of years or even decades, you may need to replace that part at some point.
There are companies that specialize in EOL/obsolescence. Had there been one in the pool pump industry, they would have known the 1.5 hp motor was on its way out. They would have bought any leftover 1.5 hp motors, and gotten its design and manufacturing specs from the vendor. If they had determined there would be ongoing demand for 1.5 hp motors (there is a significant installed base of above-ground pools in the New England area), they might have made a few just to make sure they could and that the motors worked.
If there were enough customers that needed these motors, one of these companies would schedule a production run. Once the motors were done, the EOL vendor would back the performance of the motors. If there was a problem, they’d be at the end of the phone. If they couldn’t directly service the motor/pump, they’d know who would. In short, they would have helped a customer with an investment in a pool keep the pool working for a while longer.
(A side note: The pool itself has a 10-year warrantee; oddly enough, the pump and the filter don’t. I’m not sure why I bought a pool that would outlast its most crucial components. In fact, I should know better, II write about purchasing for a living. I made a bad decision. But I suspect this sounds familiar to some of you.)
My pool pump situation is magnified 100-fold if the component in question is a semiconductor and the end-product is a military aircraft, MRI machine or a missile defense system. The folks that invested hundreds of millions of dollars in these systems need them to last for decades. If one part fails, is discontinued or the vendor goes away, folks with a lot more at stake than a pool are faced with a big problem. They are trying to repair a system with a part that no longer exists.
Companies such as Rochester Electronics -- a neighbor of mine in Newburyport, MA -- exist solely to prevent this type of problem. They’ll buy the EOL inventory, and they’ll buy the die, masks and IP of the semiconductor. If that’s not available, Rochester will re-create the part so it performs exactly like the original. They will stock it and ship it to the end customer. In short, they will do everything and more that my pool pump vendor should have done in the first place.
My problem was just a pool — there are folks out there that are facing the exact same problem with their missile defense system or life-saving medical equipment. Electronics buyers should be aware that EOL/obsolescence companies exist, and the good ones are authorized by component suppliers. In the upcoming months, Electronics Purchasing Strategies will be profiling these companies and talking about some of some the real mission-critical situations they’ve faced.