Have you been told that the mass flow controllers you have been using for years are now obsolete and no longer available from the OEM? Have you noticed that you are seeing the price of repair parts and the lead time required to repair these devices increasing? Are you seeing more and more of the devices you send back to the OEM for service deemed “Non-repairable”? Have you noticed the new replacement devices offered by the OEM don’t seem to offer a considerable difference in performance from the old ones you have been using successfully for years?
These are the experiences of many end users as a result of the recent obsolescence of some of the most popular models of mass flow controllers. The big question the customer has is “When should I start replacing my older models with the new ones?” The big question the OEM has is “How can I make the customer do this in my best interests?”
In the old days (as they say) a new model mass flow controller would be introduced as a major leap in technology with obvious benefits in the application, like the development of the metal seal to replace the elastomer seal, or the improved response and stability of a solenoid valve over a thermal valve. These developments and their corresponding process improvements were quickly recognized and adopted by the end users. In these cases of revolutionary improvements the older models were obsoleted almost overnight as end users just quit buying them in favor of the newer models. An example would be the obsolescence of the Unit Instruments UFC-1000 series by the UFC-1100 series in the mid 1980’s. The performance and reliability of the UFC-1100 was so much better than the UFC-1000 that the move to obsolescence was very rapid and driven by the end users. The OEM just could not sell enough of the older devices to justify the continuation of the model after the customer saw the new one.
Having said that, there are still thousands of Unit UFC-1000’s in use today in applications where the improvements of the newer devices do not easily justify a change. We still service the UFC-1000 and we still sell replacement UFC-1000’s to customers if they insist, although we do encourage their replacement, at least with the UFC-1100, because we know the reliability is much better. In many cases the customer is so averse to a change in their process that they refuse to make this change, even when the evidence from over 20 years of use is overwhelmingly in favor of the new device. I am surprised that the OEM’s did not anticipate this level of brand/model customer loyalty (in some cases approaching a level of superstitious or spiritual attachment) when they made the decisions which started us down the road of product obsolescence that we are experiencing today.
As the application of mass flow controllers has spread from what used to be focused on the leading edge of process technology (ie. Semiconductor and Fiber Optics manufacturing) to their current use in almost every conceivable application of fluid control (ie. ice cream batter machines and condom quality testing) the need for leading technical advancement has taken somewhat of a backseat to the need for the development of new models for different applications, or for different sales price hurdles. As such, the proliferation of models and the resulting need for claims of product differentiation for each has made it very difficult to determine whether the new model is really any better for your application than the one you are using. Kind of like the vitamins being marketed today for men, women, old people, young people, people of poor eyesight, poor memory, erectile dysfunction, or just plain poor judgement. Is there a real difference between these products and the one you have been taking for the past 15 years?
As the installed base and sales volume of a mass flow controller of a particular model becomes larger and larger, it is harder for the OEM to pull the trigger on this model as they have invested considerable expense in the development of manufacturing systems and the spare parts and components supply chain and inventory. It has been estimated that over 400,000 Unit Instruments UFC-1660 series mass flow controllers have been sold worldwide over the lifetime of that product. You would think that such an installed base would justify the continuation of service, and sales, for that model mass flow controller by the OEM for many years. However, as the mass flow controller OEM’s develop newer, “improved” models, and these models begin to be specified into new tools by the major process equipment manufacturers, the volume of sales demand for the older models becomes driven by the request for replacement devices, which can be much less than the original demand by the equipment OEM’s. While a device is being manufactured as a high volume current model, the cost of spare parts for the repair of these devices is kept low because of the volume of parts being bought and used to build all the new devices being sold. As the sales volume drops it becomes more and more expensive to purchase these spare parts because the volume is greatly diminished. As the OEM production volume moves to newer models it also becomes harder to justify the expense of maintaining any specialized equipment, procedures, and most importantly the expertise, required to adequately service the older models. Since there is no longer a large sales volume base to justify any subsidy for the cost of service, the price of spare parts goes up, the service price goes up, and the turnaround gets longer. All of which certainly plays to the OEM’s best interest.
As the technology of the mass flow controller has advanced it has become harder and harder to continue the same level of revolutionary change which quickly replaces an earlier model. That means many customers will continue to use the older models because they don’t see the technical benefit in their application, they are familiar with the device and it’s performance in their application, and they probably have a spare parts inventory to support the older device. That also means the OEM needs to do something to speed up this transition so they can spread the cost of the new models over a larger sales volume, and they can stop making the obsolete devices because the lower volume will drive up the manufacturing cost and use resources which could applied to the newer model.
So how do you do that? Well, first you declare the older models “obsolete” and declare the new model as the “improved” replacement. This will immediately cause a concern from customers that they are using a technically inferior device that is unable to meet their needs, even though it probably has been doing so for years. Once the OEM has done this they certainly want the customer to start to buying the new models and the quicker they can convince you to make that change the better. Now is the time to raise the price of any older models that may still be on the production line, for two reasons. Many customers will pay more for the older devices because they need time to make the decision about what to do next, and secondly it makes the newer model look like a better deal than the old one.
Since the OEM has already told you that the old models are no longer available for purchase, the next thing to do is to discontinue the service of the older models. Now the OEM can’t just declare they will no longer supply service for the older models, since they sold all these to you in the first place, and that would probably leave a bit of a bad taste for their customers at that point. Remember, the service price for the obsolete model is going to have to go up unless the OEM wants to subsidize the cost, and they don’t. So, instead of immediately stopping the service of the obsolete mass flow controllers, and possibly alienating a large customer base, the best thing to do is to let the service continue for a couple of years, or at least say that. This will allow the OEM to use up a large part of the spare parts they most certainly have left over from the old model production and then either increase the service price and lead times, or start to declare a large portion of the obsolete models returned for service as “non-repairable” and sell a new one as the replacement. This will result in customers reaching their own conclusion that it is not economical to continue to repair the older models and start to buy the new models. Now the OEM can quietly discontinue the service since the customers have made the decision to move on the new models. The pitfall with this, especially true in the current market, is that once you put the customer in the position to have to make the decision to move to another model, you have also opened the door for them to look at other models from other OEM’s. That might not be too smart if another OEM has a model with more visibility, longer performance history, and better brand recognition than the replacement model from the original OEM.
This may sound like a description of the recent round of model obsolescence by a specific OEM, but it is not. In our thirty three years in the mass flow controller business we have seen this same process occur in the lifecycle of many mass flow controller models, by many OEM’s, many who are no longer in business. It is not unusual, and it is very predictable. The only difference today is the number of models that have been obsoleted at once, the size of the installed base of those models, and the simultaneous acquisition and control of two of the major brands that are being obsoleted by another major brand.
Coastal Instruments has experienced this process many times in the past. We know what to expect, and we know what we have to do to be able to continue to support our customers mass flow controller service and spares needs. We had over three years notice of this action, and we started getting ready three years ago. We have accumulated a large inventory of OEM spare parts and finished goods inventory of many of the obsoleted models which can be configured by our experienced technicians to meet your specific requirements. In some cases the models being obsoleted have no direct replacement by ANY other model or brand currently available. In that case, we know which models, and we have some options we can propose for your needs.
Now what does all this mean to a mass flow controller user today? It means that what you can expect from the OEM’s regarding availability, pricing , likely hood of continued service, and the price of that service for the discontinued devices is probably predictable and unavoidable, regardless of what you may think, or have been told to the contrary. If you are a process equipment manufacturer who has been using large numbers of the obsoleted mass flow controller models you have probably already made the move to a replacement model as there was very little choice for your situation. If you are an end user with a large installed base of the obsolete devices it is very likely that you can expect many years of continued support for these devices from Coastal Instruments. We are still providing service and spares to our customers for models that were obsoleted by the OEM’s over 25 years ago, and we don’t expect any difference with this latest round of product obsolescence.
Should you evaluate some of newer models to see if they give you a significant improvement in your application? Absolutely! And in that case, make the change, and we can supply you with the same level of service on those latest models as well, including the Brooks GF and Horiba-STEC SEC-Z500 series.
Should you start a wholesale replacement of your older mass flow controllers just because they have been declared obsolete by the OEM and you have been told that they will no longer support them? Absolutely not!
If you have questions regarding the continued availability and support of your specific obsolete or discontinued mass flow controllers, call Coastal Instruments at 1-800-MFC-HELP, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Give us the opportunity to share with you the knowledge we have acquired in over 33 years in the MFC business (33 years dealing with obsolete models of mass flow controllers), and only in the MFC business.
Remember, we don’t care what brand or model you use, or don’t use, we can service them all!