It is strange how onboarding the concept of legacy sustainment can change the way you look at the world around you. On a recent road trip along one of the nation’s many two-lane highways, I found myself wondering about the thousands upon thousands of wooden utility poles dotting the landscape. How often are they repaired? How long do they last? Who maintains them? And, of course, because I’m at GDCA, what kind of obsolescence planning is in place to make sure these countless poles are replaced before they become a service disruption problem?
After a bit of research, I discovered that wooden utility poles are a fantastic example of unexpected difficulties in managing product obsolescence. As it turns out, with more than 120 million1 wooden poles in use across the United States, the challenge is not making sure the poles are replaced before it’s too late but rather making sure they aren’t replaced too soon.
The average utility industry estimate for the life span of a wooden pole is 35–40 years in service, but actual observations of life spans in the field indicate that a treated and maintained pole could stay in service for as long 80–150 years.2 I don’t know whether the telecommunications industry has ever needed to do a last time buy (LTB) on telephone poles, but from a sustainment perspective, the increased actual life spans represent a 50 to 75 percent reduction in the frequency of replacement parts. A difference like that is bound to have an impact on decision making in regard to funding allocation, stocking, modernization, and alternate product selection (e.g., steel poles and underground cabling).
The above just goes to show that even with this very simple, everyday product, common assumptions about life span can lead to unnecessary costs and complications. When planning for sustainment, it sometimes isn’t enough to prepare for obsolescence; it also helps to know that the life cycle you forecasted is real.
The GDCA Team