Inventory Gets Flexible

Manufacturers take advantage of chips that can be reprogrammed for new products.

Every manufacturer has faced the problem at one time or another: inventory that sits around long enough to become outdated, unwanted and sometimes just plain unusable. Usually, it either ends up being sold at a loss or scrapped and written off altogether. But what if you could have flexible inventory -- that is, parts or components that could be adapted to the changing needs of the customer or the application? The fact is, you can -- at least when it comes to electronics. A number of manufacturers are already taking advantage of the latest generation of microprocessors that can be reprogrammed at the last minute to perform different tasks, thereby altering or extending the capabilities -- and even the shelf life -- of their products. "Customers want to be able to customize their products at the last possible minute," says Paul Grimme, corporate vice president and general manager of the 8- and 16-bit Microcontroller Division at Motorola Inc. "As a result, this technology is becoming more important to manufacturers' flexibility." Motorola and other chipmakers such as Microchip Technology are building microprocessors that can be adapted to new uses. "With our flash memory products, you can program the device late in the manufacturing process," says Grimme. "It gives flexibility to the manufacturer." Microchip Technology, based in Chandler, Ariz., has a number of customers that depend on it to provide microprocessors that can be modified to perform functions other than those originally designed into it. One manufacturer, Delphi Automotive Systems' Electronics division in Kokomo, Ind., has saved money using the reprogrammable microcontrollers from Microchip Technology in its automotive parts. As Delphi's customers make changes in calibrations to enhance their own products, the parts supplier has to move swiftly to accommodate their changed needs in its own products. "In the past, we had to have external components to handle the new calibrations and other changes from our customers," says Mike Koeske, senior project engineer in the Delphi unit's microelectronics section. "The reprogrammability allows us to take time out of the supply chain, because we don't have to wait for new materials to arrive. With reprogrammable parts, you can turn the material around in days. It makes us more responsive to our customers' needs." In another example, Johnson Controls is using Microchip Technology's microcontrollers to control and interface with various garage door and home security systems. Johnson Controls' HomeLink Universal Transceiver, a remote garage door opener, depends on the reprogrammability of the electronics to ensure full compatibility with both auto manufacturers and makers of garage doors, burglar alarms, and other home electronic safety and convenience systems. Even though these systems continue to change and evolve, Johnson Controls is able to ensure that its devices can be changed accordingly.

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