How to Mitigate the Risks of Using Hard-to-Find Electronic Components

Empty shelf where electronic components should be

Hard-to-find electronic components can derail a project, but there are a few things designers can do to mitigate this issue

Have you ever been working on a project and realized you needed a part you did not have? Then, you race down to the electronics store to pick it up—excitedly anticipating installing it—only to be confronted with an empty space on the shelf where your part should be? Is there any more disappointing feeling than that? Not many. A similar disappointment can be had when you realize a critical component of your PCBA design is not available.

The implications of needing hard-to-find electronic components range from having to redesign your board to a delayed design and/or development schedule. The potential severity of delaying or halting PCBA design, development, or production because of hard-to-find electronic components necessitates an understanding of why parts are at times unavailable and requires the development of a plan to mitigate this contingency.

What Exactly Are Hard-to-Find Electronic Components?

Virtually all circuit board designs include passive electronic components such as resistors, inductors, and capacitors, and this demand is why so many manufacturers build these parts. The same is true for general active components. Examples include the BC547 NPN transistor and the LM741 op-amp. At the other end of the spectrum is what is sometimes referred to as hard-to-find electronic components, as they tend to suffer from periods of unavailability. Unavailable components typically fall within one of the following categories.

Components That Are No Longer Manufactured

Over time, advances in technology result in manufacturers ending production of older components in favor of newer ones with improved functionality, capability, or different dimensionality and/or packaging.

Exotic Components

Unique or exotic components are parts that are rarely used and, therefore, not heavily produced. Often, this lack of utilization is tied to their specialty and limited opportunities for application. Moreover, these components may be manufactured by a single company.

Components That Are Undergoing a Shortage

When a manufacturer stops production of a part, there will be a period of time where the industry adjusts to this decline in availability, called a shortage. However, the term is most often used to describe when a component is in full production and availability suddenly and unintentionally declines. Reasons for this may range from contingencies, such as a factory fire or other catastrophe, to regulatory shutdowns.

The above cases are for distinct types of components; however, any component can become hard to find at one time or another. Therefore, a more general explanation is necessary that can be broadly applied for hard-to-find electronic components.

Why Are Some Parts Easier to Find Than Others?

As discussed above, some parts are destined to be difficult to find, and this should be considered when selecting older parts that have newer alternatives and exotic parts. Shortages, on the other hand, are much more difficult to predict and plan for. In addition to shortages, there are other common reasons components may be difficult to locate. These include:

1. Obsolescence

Component obsolescence, which is the reduction in usage of a part, is a normal occurrence that all parts will eventually go through. This is true for even the most popular components, as the drives for smaller components, more functionality, and greater capability ultimately mandate a redesign. Redesign may also be necessitated by technological advancement or expanded application.

2. New Components

Just as component availability is low at the end of a product’s lifecycle, the same situation exists at the beginning when a new product is introduced—production increases as the product becomes accepted and utilized more by engineers and designers.

3. Limited Manufacturers

A new electronic component is often protected by patent initially, which often means only one company produces it. This can limit availability, at least early in the part’s lifecycle.

4. Limited Distributors

With the growth of the internet and its increased utilization by manufacturers, many electronic parts are now marketed directly by the company. Often, this is in lieu of widespread distribution; therefore, limiting the number of sources from which the part can be acquired.

How Can You Avoid the Hassle of Component Unavailability?

It is easy to become complacent when designing your PCBAs. Automatically defaulting to previously used components and choosing parts without checking their availability is common. Instead, you should institute a plan consisting of the guidelines below when choosing components for your design.

Avoiding Hard-To-Find-Electronic Components

  • Ensure your component availability data is up-to-date.
  • Only select obsolescent components for proof of concept or small projects.
  • Select components that have alternatives, if possible.
  • Only use exotic components if absolutely necessary.
  • Check for electronic component shortages.

By incorporating these actions into the component selection process, you can significantly reduce the possibility of having any hard-to-find electronic components in your PCBA design.

If you’re looking for CAD models for common components or even hard-to-find components, Ultra Librarian helps by compiling all your sourcing and CAD information in one place. Working with Ultra Librarian sets up your team for success to ensure streamlined and error-free design, production, and sourcing. Register today for free.

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