Mil IC suppliers taking the offensive in COTS debate

March 1, 1998
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. - Suppliers of military-grade integrated circuits - particularly those who meet the guidelines of the Defense Department`s Qualified Manufacturing List (QML) - typically take a beating in debates concerning the Pentagon`s commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) program.

By John Keller

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. - Suppliers of military-grade integrated circuits - particularly those who meet the guidelines of the Defense Department`s Qualified Manufacturing List (QML) - typically take a beating in debates concerning the Pentagon`s commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) program.

In the electronics business there is a widely held belief that QML parts do not qualify as COTS, and that contractors who call out QML-grade parts in proposals may actually put their bids in jeopardy.

This perception, however, does not stop there. In the minds of many, in fact, COTS and QML are mutually exclusive, and some of the industry`s so-called "commercial-grade zealots" are taking advantage of an opportunity to knock the value of QML suppliers in today`s COTS market.

Members of the QML, however, are getting fed up with this rhetorical abuse. So they are taking the offensive not only to dispel what they identify as industry myths and rumors that seek to put them at a competitive disadvantage, but also to point out the value of their QML parts in COTS procurements.

The most prominent target of the QML suppliers approaches the very heart of the COTS debate - the definition of COTS itself. QML parts, they insist, indeed are COTS parts. Moreover, they say, QML devices can be less-expensive alternatives over the long term than their commercial-grade cousins - particularly in environmentally demanding applications that require the highest possible reliability.

While top officials in the Pentagon include any electronic component that does not require Defense Department money to develop in the COTS category, many in industry consider commercial off-the-shelf equipment to be commercial-grade off the shelf.

QML suppliers hate this notion, but some acknowledge that it has become part of the political landscape. This leaves them with an uphill battle to place their QML parts on an equal footing with commercial-grade parts.

"When you hear the term QML these days, many manufacturers shy away from it. That`s reality," says Bahig Tawfellows, senior component engineer with the AlliedSignal Inc. Defense & Space Systems division in Teterboro, N.J.

Tawfellows made his comments in a presentation Feb. 3 at the Electronic Components for the Commercialization of Military and Space Systems conference in Huntington Beach, Calif.

QML suppliers are appealing to original equipment manufacturers to weigh the relative costs, over time, of QML parts versus commercial-grade parts. They say the results of such a study may reveal surprising results.

"There is far more to choosing parts that costs," says Dave Allen, space business marketing manager at the National Semiconductor Corp. Mil/Aero division in Santa Clara, Calif. "There is a lot of cost and risk associated with plastic parts."

Among those risks, experts point out, are difficulty tracing the wafer fab origin of each part to ensure its quality "pedigree;" rapid parts obsolescence with little or no notice from the chip manufacturers; and using parts of questionable quality or origin in environmentally demanding military and aerospace applications.

Among the costs of using commercial-grade parts in military systems, experts say, are additional testing to upscreen commercial-grade parts for demanding applications; shielding commercial-grade parts from shock, vibration, electromagnetic interference, and temperature extremes; and the extra research necessary to find commercial-grade parts that meet specific operating environments.

Some estimates, in fact, say the overall price of buying commercial-grade parts can be as much as three times the cost of purchasing QML parts when the costs of upscreening, alterations, shielding, and system failures are factored in.

John Hartman, military business development manager at QML supplier Analog Devices Inc. in Wilmington, Mass., is among those leading the charge to put misperceptions to rest concerning COTS vs. QML.

In a presentation at the Huntington Beach conference, Hartman laid out what he calls four myths: "COTS ICs will save money," mil/aero ICs are becoming obsolete," COTS ICs increase technology," and "surface-mount 3-volt/5-volt, temperature options, and hermeticity are not available in new technology."

In response to these four points, Hartman contends that:

- the DOD budget is about $270 billion, while the total U.S. mil/aero-grade IC market is $800 million, so even if mil/aero-grade ICs were given away for free, the U.S. cost savings would be less than one half percent;

- IC parts are offered for the markets they serve, and commercial products have shorter lifecycles than military systems by five to 10 times - in fact, military-grade ICs have more than 10-year product lifecycles;

- most commercial-grade parts designed in today will be obsolete in two or three years when military system production starts; and

- Analog Devices is only one company that offers commercially developed digital signal processors, multichip modules, and DC-DC converters in 3-volt/5-volt versions, that resist temperature extremes, and are available in hermetic packages.

Officials of some suppliers are even starting to use their QML status as a marketing tool. "QML is our friend," says Howard Bogrow, manager of high-reliability marketing at Xilinx Inc., a field programmable gate array manufacturer in San Jose, Calif. "QML gives us extra assurance of a consistent product pedigree," Bogrow explains, pointing out that QML requires chip manufacturers to use the same masks consistently.

"QML is an off-the-shelf solution," Bogrow goes on. "It makes us much more efficient and cost effective, and enables us to bring new products to market much more quickly than before" because the program takes the guesswork out of qualifying parts for demanding military and aerospace applications.

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