Military and aerospace component manufacturers learn from the commercial market

Sept. 1, 2005
Military and commercial component suppliers traditionally have done business in different ways.

By Estro Vitantonio

Military and commercial component suppliers traditionally have done business in different ways. While military suppliers have relied on custom designs, commercial suppliers have leaned on commonality of lists in a catalog. Companies that supplied military and commercial applications usually kept firewalls between those business segments.

Not so much anymore, however. Military component manufacturers are learning from the commercial sector, which is bringing about changes that are all for the better.

Component manufacturers supplying the military and aerospace industries often developed products for their customers that were designed for a specific application or to a particular specification. While the underlying technology was common among a particular vendor’s product line, the products sold were often customized to meet a particular specification or application.

While this situation was typical for a military and aerospace component manufacturer, however, it was the opposite of the way in which a commercial vendor designed products. Commercial vendors tried to leverage catalog product and component commonality, which was essential, given development budget limitations and rapid product life cycles.

If a manufacturer served military and aerospace markets along with commercial markets, the manufacturer would segregate the military and aerospace products and support them separately from commercial product lines.

Very little crossover existed. If a single company did serve both markets, it did so with separate design, quality, and manufacturing organizations.

Throughout the 1990s the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) pushed its commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) initiative to “commercialize” military procurement and slash development costs and the time required to field a military system.

While there are many definitions of what COTS means, the overriding principle is to encourage vendors to develop product for military and aerospace markets that could be procured with little or no modification to military specifications.

Unfortunately, systems developers were hesitant to change their component requirements to accept off-the-shelf product. When they did so, it usually resulted in a pseudo-COTS requirement. This gap has given rise to terms like military off-the-shelf (MOTS) and various other COTS monikers.

This is also where the greatest opportunity lies for a component manufacturer to develop creative new products that bridge the gap between the commercial technology and military or aerospace requirements.

Fast forward to today and it appears as if technology has caught up with COTS. Commercial technologies such as the IEEE 802.3 Ethernet, ANSI X3T11 Fibre Channel, IEEE 1394 Firewire, CANbus, and commercial power switching are now being used in military and aerospace systems.

This transition has occurred because of rising expectations for the use of technology and the increased demands for a higher level of quality, reliability, and performance. Ultimately, standards for commercial products have become more in line with military and aerospace expectations.

This transition helps move commercially developed components into military and aerospace systems. Aside from some minor modifications for mechanical and thermal design enhancements, commercial components can make the transition.

Examples of this are in military and aerospace inductor and transformer product lines from Pulse Engineering Inc. in San Diego, Calif. These products have commercial roots but have been enhanced to meet military and aerospace mechanical and thermal requirements. Similarly, Pulse’s military and aerospace AFDX Ethernet interface transformers are based on commercial designs but have been developed to maintain their electrical performance over the full military temperature range of -55 to 125 degrees Celsius. All these products are sold as off-the-shelf offerings and, because of their heritage, can be offered at a fraction of the price of traditional military products.

The recent increases in DOD development budgets, in particular the electronics systems portion of that budget, have provided systems developers a new opportunity to use the latest and greatest technologies. The use of these technologies affords the designer the opportunity to incorporate a commercial and/or a military derivative component in the design.

This gives rise to a unique opportunity for the component manufacturer to leverage its commercial technologies for use in military and aerospace designs. Unfortunately, it is not an easy decision as to what aspects of the design can transition.

For example, a standard commercial plastic-encapsulated surface-mount component designed for commercial applications and having a temperature capability of 40°C to 85°C may meet a military system developer’s specification. On the other hand, failure in test (FIT) or mean time between failures (MTBF) data may determine the part may need to be redesigned or modified to provide a higher reliability for a particular design environment.

Component manufacturers need to consider not only what is being designed today, but also how that design will be impacted in the future. While this is not always clear, a variety of factors such as manufacturing processes and material availability need to be understood to provide products that can support the typical life of a military or aerospace program.

Diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortage (DMSMS) issues can drive costs well beyond the initial development and procurement costs of a product. Component manufacturers need to be sensitive to this as they develop product for today’s market.

While there are many ways to support extended product lifecycles, most come down to commonality. Leveraging existing platforms and equipment and modifying them for use in military or aerospace systems is a way to guarantee an extended product lifecycle. With the military’s ever-expanding use of commercial technologies, product leveraging makes more sense. While markets for commercial catalog products will always move faster than the military market, military and aerospace vendors will benefit from the stability of “commonality.”

Commercialization is already having a profound effect on the market for military and aerospace goods and services. This has yet to have a major influence on the component manufacturer. But, changes will become more evident as the commercialization initiative matures.

Expect more entrants into the market for military and aerospace components as the market expands and manufacturers reconsider a market that they once considered too small and fragmented. This is the outcome the military and aerospace industries’ desire and need to maintain a competitive advantage.

Estro Vitantonio is general manager at the Military and Aerospace Division of Pulse Engineering Inc. in San Diego. Contact Pulse online at

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