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When a component/IC stops being manufactured, due to newer, and maybe more efficient, etc, chips becoming available, what happens to the designs?

Are they released, so that somebody else can manufacture them if they wish?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The rights to manufacture must be negotiated. \$\endgroup\$ – Tony Stewart Sunnyskyguy EE75 Jul 31 '18 at 22:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ When Chevy stopped making the '57 Corvette, did they release the design to let anybody build it? \$\endgroup\$ – The Photon Aug 1 '18 at 1:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThePhoton sadly not... \$\endgroup\$ – Arsenal Aug 1 '18 at 11:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Arsenal well, I'd certainly like to have a '57 Corvette, but even if I had the plans, I wouldn't be able to make one for myself, leave alone produce cars at scale at prices that wouldn't make people go and buy a brand-new Lamborghini including a second one as backup. \$\endgroup\$ – Marcus Müller Aug 1 '18 at 11:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarcusMüller, ah, but the API for cars and driveways and roads doesn't change: you put round friction-y things on the road and apply torque to move your vehicle. There are no roads (APIs, devices, compatibility) that a '57 Corvette can handle but a Lamborghini can't; the same can't be said for old microchips. \$\endgroup\$ – Wildcard Sep 8 '18 at 2:16
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The designs are still the property of the original owners, and they don't generally "release" them. If there were licensed or unofficial 2nd sources it's more likely that was initiated when the product was more active.

I believe that sometimes a third party will buy up a quantity of dice and package them up as orders arrive. Running a few extra wafers at the twilight of the design life of a part may not be all that expensive. We buy a relatively expensive (some thousands of dollars) extremely specialized part where the original manufacturer has shut down their entire fab after making enough stock of bare dice for the foreseeable future.

Also, grey market dealers may hoard last-buy and surplus parts, as well as parts removed from scrapped PCBs. These have dubious provenance at best, and may be counterfeit or fraudulent parts at worst, but they may be a last resort. Some of the dealers are much more reputable than others.

Why would anyone want to buy old inefficient obsolete parts? Sometimes the cost of re-design or certification is so high that the end product will otherwise have to be abandoned. For example, when microcontrollers are obsoleted it can cause much gnashing of teeth, especially among smaller customers. This is particularly true when there is a technology and architecture shift such that there are no longer even somewhat compatible parts being manufactured.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you mean something like ARCNET controllers? \$\endgroup\$ – Ale..chenski Jul 31 '18 at 23:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not certain what you mean by "grey market" here, but there are some legitimate distributors that buy up parts for future resale for the very reason you mentioned in your last paragraph. I worked for one that bough up the surplus as one manufacture shut down a line and carted the parts across town (in a taxi) to another manufacture to avert a line stoppage. The markup can be significant, in line with risk of getting stuck with a bunch of worthless junk requiring specialized disposal. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Drake Aug 1 '18 at 16:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JoshuaDrake Grey market is anything that is not going directly through a manufacturer-franchised distributor. There is a higher risk of getting returned, old, programed OTP parts, used or even counterfeit parts, particularly for eBay and Ali suppliers. I have even gotten such parts from suppliers that have real North American warehouses, though returns are straightforward with those guys. They perform a useful service, with a commensurate markup. \$\endgroup\$ – Spehro Pefhany Aug 1 '18 at 17:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AliChen these are extremely oddball chips, not even semiconductors in the conventional sense. There are only a few fabs on the planet that can make them. \$\endgroup\$ – Spehro Pefhany Aug 1 '18 at 17:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ "a quantity of dice", I suppose you mean a quantity of dies? Unless we're doing an electronics/roleplaying crossover type thing here? \$\endgroup\$ – KlaymenDK Aug 1 '18 at 19:49
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Not usually, no.

Historically, many chip designs have been licensed to alternative manufacturers (a system called "second sourcing") because a lot of purchasers would refuse to buy a chip only available from one supplier. In that case, even after the original manufacturer has stopped a second source supplier may continue to produce the chip -- for example, this has happened to the Intel 8086 and 8088, which are still produced by the second source supplier Intersil even though Intel stopped producing them some time ago. But this isn't automatic, and depends on the second source supplier thinking there is still a market. It's also less likely to happen today because second sources are no longer considered as important, so many chips today only have a single supplier.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ When you say licensed, is that only for a period of time, or are the designs actually bought out completely? Would any manufacturers consider licensing/selling their defunct designs to individuals, to be manufactured in even small quantities? \$\endgroup\$ – 19172281 Jul 31 '18 at 22:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure of the precise details, but it's certainly the case that designs that were considered obsolete by the original manufacturers 20 years ago are still being manufactured today, so I presume that the licenses weren't time limited. I suspect that such licensing deals may be possible, but you'd need to have a credible semiconductor fabrication business before you could even approach them to ask them, otherwise you'd never end up talking to the right person, so it's hard to be sure if it's actually possible or not. \$\endgroup\$ – Jules Jul 31 '18 at 22:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Considering the cost of getting your own mask, and the certainty that you don't get the original mask, as that contains all the competitive advance of the technological methods of the original manufacturer, I'll say: if you have to ask on stack exchange, it's damn impossible. \$\endgroup\$ – Marcus Müller Jul 31 '18 at 22:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ And second sourcing was a big thing in the 1970s through to the late 80s. And these things will probably never run out of production, unless the factory that produces them burns down (happened to the SA612) or the mask breaks and it's not profitable to make a new one. But if that's not profitable, then it isn't profitable for you, either. Can't think of a modern part where second source agreements are done - such things are usually solved by standardization these days (e.g. DDR4 RAM), not through sharing designs. \$\endgroup\$ – Marcus Müller Jul 31 '18 at 22:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarcusMüller - or licensing of IP blocks, e.g. the various chips that include ARM processor cores. That would probably be the closest modern equivalent, as many of these chips are functionally very similar and if, e.g., ST stopped producing their ARM based microcontroller range it would be very easy for another manufacturer to produce an equivalent part (if, as you say, there was enough demand). \$\endgroup\$ – Jules Aug 1 '18 at 11:26
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They are not "released" per se...

While maskwork and patent rights are of shorter duration than copyright protection, even the 10 year term of mask work rights is longer than the lifecycle of some ICs in this day and age. Patent protection is another issue -- the 20 year lifespan and the strong barrier to independent redevelopment that a patent provides means that risking a patent violation to redevelop an obsoleted function is simply not worth it in 99% of the cases.

However, there are options

In some cases, a part that has been obsoleted by its original manufacturer may have been second sourced, where a second or even third manufacturer has produced the part under a license of patent and maskwork (or just patent) rights from the first manufacturer. This was more common in the past for "commodity" analog, mixed-signal, and interfacing functions; while not used as much nowadays on new parts, some parts have become household names (think MAX232) partly due to widespread multiple-sourcing.

In fact, the original MAX232 design and mask are technically in the public domain now as all rights to them have expired. Maxim still makes the chip, though, in addition to several second-source suppliers, who would now be free to sublet production or revise the masks and circuit to their tastes within constraints of the license contract, or make new derivatives with different part numbers, even.

There are also parts that are multiple-sourced subject to industry standards, such as generic discrete semiconductors, common SSI/MSI logic functions, and memories small and large, which are generally covered by JEDEC standards such that any vendor's part may be used in any application that is designed to accept a part that meets specification.

In addition to second-sources or standardized sources outliving the original, there are specialists, most notably Rochester Electronics, that buy up packaged parts and/or wafers (during a "Last Time Buy" phase) and stockpile them for future distribution. In some select cases, obsolete-parts specialists such as Rochester may buy masks from an original or second-source manufacturer in addition to their Last Time Buy of produced parts, wafers, or dice -- this gives them the power to restart manufacture of the part at any time, subject to foundry constraints, as many obsolete parts rely on obsolete chipmaking processes that may no longer be in use.

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Components that are no longer manufactured may be replaced by "newer faster" components, with that faster switching introducing more inductive bounce and leading to oscillation or faulty switching or blowback into the Logic Signal source.

Components characterized with DC high voltage measurements may not be suitable for transient switching. This topic has arisen here on stackexchange, with "modern" power MOSFETs having significantly smaller SafeOperatingArea (SOA) pulsed switching survival.

So what happens to components that are no longer manufactured? at times, the user community encounters major reliability and warrantee problems with newer replacement provides-the-same-functionality components, but a serious effort to understand WHY the newer components are not reliable becomes necessary.

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When a component/IC stops being manufactured, due to newer, and maybe more efficient, etc, chips becoming available, what happens to the designs?

They are kept in a 'bin' at the manufacturer, there is more than just the designs anyway. There is a lot of in-house knowledge and the manufacturing line with is probably just as important as the design (or 'photoplotting' files and schematics).

Designs are obsoleted for a reason, while there are some parts that had benefits over newer technologies and are sorely missed, most newer parts trump old designs.

Are they released, so that somebody else can manufacture them if they wish?

Generally no, but there have been a few exceptions. Linear systems either re-created or bought rights to develop a lot of older designs for low noise transistors. Which is really good for those people who need those types of transistors, because the market is a niche, and most of the bigger players don't want to be bothered.

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