Electronics suppliers told to stay with COTS, get ready to speed-up production

The nation's defense electronics suppliers are proceeding full-speed ahead in their use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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By John Keller

WASHINGTON — The nation's defense electronics suppliers are proceeding full-speed ahead in their use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Production speed and quantities are expected to increase.

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Electronics suppliers to U.S. and allied military forces are making plans to ramp up production and deliveries to wartime levels. Pictured above, a U.S. Navy F/A-18 jet fighter bomber takes off for a bombing mission over Afghanistan.
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In fact, the current crisis is reinforcing the case for COTS as the United States and its allies marshal their resources to carry out what promises to be a long and grinding war against international terrorism, industry officials say. Few people, if any, are considering a return to custom and mil-spec components.

At the same time, the nation's top military commanders are telling their electronics contractors to make ready not only to speed production to a wartime tempo, but also to prepare to deliver quantities far in excess of previously negotiated levels.

"COTS helps because they can take components right off our production line, and expect to be at the head of the queue. Military-grade parts would take 10 to 20 weeks because they are built to order," explains Clarence Peckham, president of the SBS Technologies Inc. Government group in Raleigh, N.C.

SBS is ready to ship parts to the government in as little time as two days, to as long as eight to 10 weeks for custom conduction-cooled boards, Peckham says.

The SBS Government group specializes in rugged single-board computers and other board products in VME and CompactPCI form factors for military, aerospace, and other government applications.

"COTS is here to stay; no one is going backwards," Peckham says. "There are more and more opportunities for COTS, enabled by things like spray cooling, with key drivers such as avionics upgrades and ageing aircraft."

Although reliability and supportability concerns remain top priorities, the case for COTS appears to be stronger than ever. — particularly as electronics suppliers scramble to meet military demands for intelligence, surveillance, communications, and other counter-terrorism technologies.

"The whole COTS thing has a life and momentum of its own. Cost is paramount, with the need of doing more with less," says William Standen, vice president of marketing and sales with Martek Power SA in Los Angeles.

"Since Sept. 11, I see no change in the push for COTS whatsoever," Standen says. Martek Power specializes in rugged off-the-shelf power supplies for military and aerospace systems. Regarding COTS "I don't believe there has been any significant change worth mentioning. I can't perceive any significant change in how we do business or how our customers do business with us," echoes Duncan Young, director of marketing for DY 4 Systems, a rugged board supplier in Kanata, Ontario.

Support for COTS apparently is solid through to the prime contractors as well. "There has not been sufficient time yet to put any significant changes into acquisition approaches, in terms of COTS vs. elaborately militarized equipment," says Mark Day, spokesman for Raytheon Systems in El Segundo, Calif. "I see no revolutionary program changes. At this point it is business as usual."

Yet where the defense electronics business is certainly not usual in the wake of the terrorist attacks is in government demands for accelerated production and time schedules.

"Everyone is calling and asking for accelerated deliveries and larger quantities on the programs we are working on," says Doug Patterson, director of marketing for Vista Controls Corp., a rugged board and subsystems designer in Santa Clarita, Calif.

"But customers are saying nothing about dropping requirements," Patterson points out. "Each program is demanding its product as it was delivered in the past. There is no relaxation on specifications."

Hurry-up warnings are going out to overseas supplies as well. "We are being asked to be prepared to respond at some time, presumably in the near future, depending on what products our customers are interested in," says Charles Paterson, group managing director of Radstone Technology plc in Towcester, England.

"The customer is saying in a general way that he thinks his demands on us might, as a result of the tragedy on 11 September, be on faster time scales than we have previously been asked for," Paterson says. Radstone supplies U.S. and European military systems with ruggedized single-board computers.

"It is still very early," Paterson cautions. "It will be some weeks to come before we see concrete orders. We are taking each day is it comes. This is a very unusual situation, and there is no history to guide us.

In some cases, speed-up warnings revolve around the so-called "DO" and "DX" contract ratings of the Defense Priorities and Allocations System program — better known as DPAS. DX-rated contracts are the highest priority, and are used for special defense programs designated to be of the highest national priority.

Martek's Standen says defense contractors since the 1980s rarely, if ever, gave much thought the DO and DX ratings — that is, until Sept. 11. "By 1992 no one cared anymore about a DX- or DO- rated contract. You worked with people, but it wasn't thrown in your face," Standen says.

"But in the last three weeks, on no less than 16 separate orders — some for spares some for production — they are waving the DX ratings in our faces," he says. "It is an amazing turn of events. Within the federal acquisition regulations people are discovering these ratings, and people remember now what a DX rating is."

As a result, suppliers such as Martek must prepare to step up production speed and quantities several notches. "We have to revisit what we are doing, and we have to expedite," Standen says. His customers "are looking at what programs are critical, and as a result they are trying to make sure if and when this conflict widens their spare parts and logistics are set up and in place."

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