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Automotive industry bids 5V NOR flash goodbye

Posted: 01 Apr 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:industry automotive? 5V flash NOR? obsolescence component?

Some automotive subsystem suppliers are finding themselves in difficulties not only because orders are down due to the global credit crisis but also, in some cases, they are facing unexpected component obsolescence.

An engineer at a supplier of engine control units (ECUs) to automobile makers has told EE Times that a last-time buy notice issued by flash memory supplier Spansion Inc. on Dec. 16, 2008 has shocked the automotive supply-chain by advising of the end of the supply of 5V automotive-grade NOR flash memories. These are the sort of flash memories that have been designed to hold engine control software in ECUs in the engine and powertrain.

This supplier receives discrete Spansion NOR flash memories from microcontroller suppliers such as Infineon Technologies AG. The microcontroller maker buys in the memory, and sends it on as microcontroller and memory pair. The customer assembles the pair into a high reliability package and programs up the memory before shipping on to the car maker. The engineer said he has been told there is no second-source for these memories, and his company now faces either ordering large quantities of flash memory or redesigning the company's entire range of ECUs.

The source, who spoke on condition that his company was not identified, stressed he is not alone and said many companies want to find a qualified supplier of pin-compatible equivalents to such devices as the Am29F200, Am29F400, Am29F800 that can operate at 5V and over the full automotive temperature range of -55C to +125C.

The engineer said that while lower voltage parts had been adopted in the cabin and for infotainment applications, 5V operation provides a better margin against EMC-induced problems for the electromagnetically noisy under-the-hood environment.

Spansion's advanced change notification No: 2740 issued on Dec. 16 concerns the "Obsolescence of all discrete floating gate and MirrorBit flash memory products manufactured at Fujitsu Semiconductor Technology Inc. (FSET) wafer fabrication facility."

"I have automotive supplier contacts in Canada, Italy and Belgium all telling me they can't get the parts. They are talking about last-time buys but we have no idea how many we need."

There is also the issue of whether modern automotive suppliers that have developed in an era of lean manufacturing and just-in-time delivery can afford to buy and hold large stocks from their component suppliers. Twenty years ago, second sources would usually have been considered necessary by the car makers. In the last decade, second-source requirements have been dropped.

Redesigning ECUs
If there is no alternative supply, engineers will have to redesign the ECUs around microcontrollers with on-chip flash the source said. However, this would require at least a PCB layout change, an I/O change and almost certainly a software change, and that was if microcontrollers could be found with enough flash memory on-chip. Effectively, this company is faced with having to redesign its entire product line in a matter of months, an almost impossible task, the source said.

The industrial and consumer sectors are also being hit by the end of 5v flash memories from Spansion, but here the situation is different as at least two companies in TaiwanAMIC Technology Corp. and Eon Silicon Solutions Inc.have been supplying pin-compatible alternatives to Spansion parts for some time at consumer temperature ranges. AMIC has qualified some parts to work over industrial temperature ranges and even over the so-called automotive lite range of -40C to +85 or +105C.

John Nation, corporate marketing manager for Spansion, said: "It's normal for companies to make products obsolete when the volume drops to a very low level. We strive to provide an upgrade path, but it is not always possible. End-of-life can occur at any time due to the end of a process or the end of volume production."

Nation said that orders for older 5V memories have been dropping for the automotive specification just as they had in commercial and industrial grades. And that it was to be expected that eventually 5V parts would disappear.

"Customers have got nine months [from the notice date] for a last time buy and nine months for scheduled deliveries."

"It seems we're being castigated for being the last company supplying these parts when it is us that extended the life of 5V."

Nation said that Spansion has been supplying high-performance burst-mode flash memories that work at 3.0V and even 2.7V for use in ECUs. Nation did not reveal what proportion of Spansion's automotive-grade memory shipments had moved to less than 5V operation.

Industrywide problem
However, the engineer stressed that it is an industrywide problem. "Infineon has the 167 microcontroller at 5V in automotive qualification, and it requires discrete flash memory. Where is that going to come from?"

Rob Stuart, who heads up AMIC Technology (Europe) BV, said: "Infineon has approached us to replace those [discrete flash memory] parts. But we designed some of them 10 years ago for consumer and industrial applications. They were never intended for the automotive market."

- Peter Clarke
EE Times Europe

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