Should Buyers Recommend Alternative Parts to Engineers?

Oliver J. Freeman, FRSA
|  Created: December 3, 2023  |  Updated: March 17, 2024

Given the extensive supply chain disruptions that we’ve witnessed across the last few years, ranging from conflicts in Europe and the Middle East to the Suez Canal blockage and droughts in Taiwan to the global pandemic and evolving environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards, access to specific electronic components was strained significantly. Currently, inventories with distributors have returned to a state of excess, but the cyclical nature of the semiconductor industry means this will eventually flip back to shortage.

Aside from cyclicality, common parts routinely go obsolete or EOL and they must be removed from a BOM. Although engineers make efforts to locate these obsolete/EOL parts early, sometimes these parts are found by a purchasing manager when planning a production run. So the question becomes: should buyers select alternatives based on distributor recommendations, or should they just recommend alternatives to engineers?

There is risk associated with both options, and it’s up to the engineering team to review any recommendations or take steps to find alternates on their own.

Understanding the Engineers’ Perspective

If you’re an electronics buyer (either internal to an organization, with a contract manufacturer, or with a 3PL), you have probably seen parts recommendations on your supply chain platform or distributor websites. Distributors have a lot of data on parts and they can use sophisticated algorithms to determine appropriate replacements or alternates for a part in their database. Similarly, supply chain tools may have purchasing data or specifications data which they can use to recommend alternates when a part is out-of-stock, obsolete, or EOL.

For engineering teams, alternate parts that have not been qualified bring risk, so they need to be reviewed before being added to the BOM as a suitable alternative. This is why buyers should not automatically choose alternate parts, they should only recommend alternates if they are flagged as such by a distributor or supply chain platform. By recommending an alternate, the buyer reduces risk and helps speed up qualification by engineering.

  • Direct replacement - To the greatest extent possible, the alternate can be swapped directly without any major design changes. This is common for parts like op-amps, logic ICs, passives, and discrete semiconductors, and some popular ASICs have direct replacements across different vendors.
  • Pin-for-pin replacement - These parts have identical pin functions as the unavailable part, but the specifications may be slightly different (including packaging). The extent of the differences between these parts varies greatly; this specification is often applied to integrated circuits (e.g., ASICs) and may require additional design changes.
  • Similar replacement - These parts have “similar” functionality as the unavailable part, which could mean many things. The similarity could be in terms of just a few specs, packaging, or standards qualification (e.g., automotive). These parts are almost never pin-for-pin replacements and they may require testing before approval.

If a buyer wants to recommend an alternative to the engineering team, they should include one of the above designations when providing the recommendation.

There is another designation that deserves recognition, but distributor sites do not always reference these parts as potential alternates:

  • Same part number family - These parts very often have functionality, but may be in a different package or have slightly different ratings. The most common difference in ICs between parts in the same family and package is temperature rating or an additional pin function.

In summary, when buyers find parts are unavailable or obsolete/EOL, parts buyers can feel free to recommend a replacement if one is available. The parts will need to be qualified with engineering to ensure the alternate will work in the design and that the performance will meet specifications. However, before the project even gets to this point, engineers can still do a final scan of a design in order to locate obsolete or EOL parts in a BOM and eliminate these before purchasing.

Scan the BOM Before Handoff

Before handing off the BOM to purchasing, the line items in the BOM can be scanned across your distributors to locate out-of-stock parts, obsolete parts, and EOL parts in a single window. Just use the BOM Tool in Octopart to get timely and accurate inventory data before placing parts orders with distributors.

Using the BOM Tool is easy; upload your BOM in CSV or Excel format and the system will generate a list of prices and inventories across preferred distributors. In the example below, the “Query” column contains all Manufacturer Part Number entries in each line item in the BOM. Parts that are known to be EOL or Obsolete are flagged as such in the “Lifecycle” column.

Part inventories can also be viewed across distributors, which allows out-of-stock parts from preferred sources to be located so that alternate parts can be found.

These parts can then be flagged and passed onto the engineering team to locate replacements. For some parts, Octopart can provide recommendations for replacement parts and then pass these back to the engineering team for review. While it’s not always the best idea for procurement to select the alternatives, they can at least speed up the engineering review process by providing some recommendations based on Octopart’s database.

Incorporating tools like Octopart into workflows empowers both engineering and procurement teams. By being equipped with up-to-the-minute data, they can make informed decisions that respect both the intricacies of design and the realities of the market. This synergy, facilitated by digital tools, is crucial in our current landscape, where rapid adjustments often become necessary due to ever-shifting market dynamics.

About Author

About Author

Oliver J. Freeman, FRSA, former Editor-in-Chief of Supply Chain Digital magazine, is an author and editor who contributes content to leading publications and elite universities—including the University of Oxford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology—and ghostwrites thought leadership for well-known industry leaders in the supply chain space. Oliver focuses primarily on the intersection between supply chain management, sustainable norms and values, technological enhancement, and the evolution of Industry 4.0 and its impact on globally interconnected value chains, with a particular interest in the implication of technology supply shortages.

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