Leadership in parts reliability switching to industry
By John Keller editor-in-chief
HILTON HEAD, S.C. - U.S. government electronics experts responsible for shaping defense systems continue to endure what they consider to be painful slights from industry and the Pentagon. As far as designers in the military services and government research laboratories are concerned, no one seems to take them very seriously anymore.
These technologists, who only recently were at the forefront of electronic systems design issues, increasingly find themselves left out of the important decisions. The power and influence they once wielded to ensure the reliability of rugged military electronic equipment is steadily peeling away.
This trend began more than three and a half years ago with the famous order from then-Defense Secretary William Perry for program managers to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology whenever possible; custom mil-spec gear henceforth would be permissible only if COTS equivalents were not available. This turned the defense procurement business on its head by rescinding the long-held philosophy that only military-grade components, packaging, and subsystems are the designer`s first choice.
The Perry memo sent a message to the defense industry that mil-spec was on its way out. Perry`s edict also came amidst an explosion of sophisticated commercial electronics development centering on computers and telecommunications. Electronics company executives have seen their mil-spec business drying up and see lucrative new commercial businesses springing up around them. They made the prudent
choice and followed the money. In the brave new world of COTS, the industry electronics designer, not the government designer, is taking the front seat when it comes to product assurance.
Over the years, government technicians had built a bulwark against electronic components and subsystems of questionable reliability, largely with a complex web of often-confusing military specifications and standards. Yet the COTS approach, by definition, relegates military specifications and standards to the back room, to be pulled out only for use in extreme and compelling circumstances. With this in mind, the government electronics designer is watching his stock in trade as it proceeds on a steep decline, and with it goes his influence. Perry`s vision calls for government program managers to state only the capabilities and operating environments of their desired new systems and upgrades. How to meet those needs is up to designers in the private sector. As the COTS procurement culture takes hold, government electronic technologists are being shunted aside with increasing frequency, and understandably they don`t like it much.
There are more than egos involved here. With good reason, military electronics experts in the government often view themselves as the last line of defense against the potential of fielding shoddy products in life- and mission-critical military applications. Government experts consider themselves to be the guardians of that extra, yet crucial, measure of system and component reliability that military equipment demands.
Few would argue that some commercial manufacturing practices place a higher priority on profit margins than they do on system and component reliability. As the rigid military standards and specifications in place to ensure product assurance go away, these government engineers are scrambling to find a different way of assuring military-grade reliability. Proposals include giving universities more responsibility for military parts reliability, and setting up a third party - industry or academia - to work with the Defense Electronics Supply Center Columbus in Columbus, Ohio, to test and stockpile high-reliability electronics for military applications.
The latest indications are, however, that their opportunity to do this is slipping away as their influence wanes, and industry`s influence takes hold.
Following the Perry edict has come a long debate on the relative merits of COTS versus mil-spec equipment. On the one hand, COTS is considered to be the better choice for capability, price, and availability. On the other hand, mil-spec components are rugged, reliable, and highly traceable when and if things go wrong because of their extensive documentation. On the downside, COTS equipment - in perception, at least - is of questionable reliability, goes obsolete very quickly, and is difficult to trace because of its variable, non-standard documentation; in short, eliminating mil-specs increases risk. Mil-spec gear, meanwhile, is expensive, time-consuming to upgrade because of its often-proprietary design, obsolete by the time it hits the field, and has an ever-dwindling supplier base.
Like it or not, military and industry systems designers stand today on the edge of a new paradigm shift every bit as significant as the first one that came with the 1994 Perry memo. This needs to be perfectly clear: in all but the most demanding operating environments the debate between COTS versus mil-spec equipment is over, and COTS won.
This was the unmistakable message of the Technology Management Symposium & Expo at Hilton Head, S.C., in November, sponsored by the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) in Crane, Ind. Speaker after speaker pointed out the momentum behind commercial manufacturing approaches such as surface-mount technology and ball grid arrays, the ever-dwindling mil-spec manufacturing base, and the rise of plastic encapsulated module (PEM) integrated circuits (ICs) as inexpensive replacements to mil-spec ceramic and metal packaging in ICs.
"When you want to improve capability in your systems, you don`t have a choice; you have to go to plastic encapsulated parts and surface-mount technology," said Dan Quearry, an electronics expert from NSWC-Crane. Echoing Quearry`s sentiment was F. Patrick McCluskey, research scientist at the Computer Aided Life Cycle Engineering Electronic Packaging Research Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md. "There is no choice. The mil-spec parts aren`t there anymore," said McCluskey, an expert on PEMs and high-temperature electronic materials.
One other indication that government engineers are being elbowed aside from product reliability and quality assurance: the imminent demise of electronics reliability branches of the U.S. military. The Reliability Physics Branch of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory Information Directorate in Rome, N.Y. (formerly Rome Laboratory), is losing its funding and is to wrap up its operations by the end of the federal fiscal year next September, says James Reilly, an electronics expert at the directorate. Says one observer at Rome, "the assumption is that commercial reliability is there now."
Profits vs. reliability
Leaders of the military and industry strive for fundamentally different goals: the military prepares to go to war, while industry seeks to make money. Noble though these goals may be, sometimes they exist in conflict, especially when it comes to reliability.
To be fair, industry`s focus on profit margin is not to say that reliability is an afterthought - far from it. To be profitable, products must be reliable or no one will buy them. Reliability is a major concern on the part of the commercial electronics buyer. No one likes it when his computer, cell phone, or satellite navigation system breaks at the worst possible time. Some would argue that market pressures force commercial electronics suppliers to build equipment that is even more reliable than military equipment, and undoubtedly in some cases this is true. Yet when profit margin is the chief consideration, commercial reliability engineers shoot for good enough, not simply good.
For the military, however, reliability - not profit margin - is the primary concern because victory, defeat, and lives hang in the balance. Among the government electronics engineers attuned to the culture of the military, there is no such thing as good enough when it comes to system reliability in a wide variety of often-harsh operating conditions. Good, preferably superior, is the only option, even if it comes at a higher price than is common in the commercial market.
It is at this often-thin, yet crucial margin between good and good enough where the crux of the matter lies. The government military systems designer knows better than anyone that this tiny space between good and good enough in military systems can - not always, but can - spell the difference between victory and defeat, and between life and death. Trusting industry alone with safeguarding that important segment of military systems reliability, many of them believe, is like having the fox guard the hen house.