Military Embedded Systems

COTS life-cycle management matures in changing market


June 24, 2008

Duncan Young

GE Intelligent Platforms, Inc.

COTS life-cycle management matures in changing market

Rigorous component-level obsolescence management is becoming a priority in light of maintenance infrastructure reductions, operational maintenance changes, and shifting equipment life expectations.

Because COTS is the preferred solution for the implementation of so many embedded computing-based military systems, the role of the original vendor in the deployed system's life cycle is still key to its effectiveness and longevity. Technology churn is a major factor, and spiral development programs use this to their advantage at the front end. But at some point, an embedded computing configuration must be fixed in order for it to be replicated for production. Once fielded, the logistics chain of workshops, test equipment, and spare parts must be established to keep it working for its operational life expectancy. Working hand in hand with integrators and end users, rugged COTS vendors have adopted various strategies to combat component obsolescence over the lifetime of a piece of equipment. However, rapid changes are taking place as a result of operational experience, reductions in the maintenance infrastructure, and changing market expectations of equipment life. These point to a renewed emphasis on rigorous management at the component level.

Changing environment

Many factors are contributing to change in the embedded military market, by direct operational experience, changing technology needs, or through maturing expectations:

  • Rapid technology churn is still apparent though much of it is now driven by the consumer, gaming, and personal communications markets where annual announcements of new products and capability are still essential for sustained growth. However, there is growing recognition that markets such as automotive, industrial, telecommunications, and military and aerospace need longer periods of stability; thus, product vendors are responding with warranted periods of availability and maintainability for new equipment supplies.
  • New projects and platforms such as FCS and the F-35 JSF are looking at reducing their logistics footprint by adopting two-level maintenance. This is achieved by introducing the concept of the Line Replaceable Module (LRM). An LRM is equivalent to an embedded computing module such as VMEbus or VPX, but enclosed within a protective cover. At the first level of maintenance, an LRM is replaceable on the flight line for rapid turnaround of a faulty vehicle. LRMs are then returned directly to their manufacturer for repair. In this way, there are no intermediate steps in the logistics chain and through-life costs are expected to be dramatically reduced.
  • Platforms' life expectancy is shrinking as they wear out due to continuous use in ongoing conflicts. Remanufacture is now being considered as a solution for many vehicles such as the U.S. Army's Bradley (Figure 1, courtesy DoD). The impact of this approach on the vehicle's embedded computing might be to introduce an early technology insertion.
  • Rapid changes in tactics and doctrine are introducing new urgent operational requirements and rapid technology insertions. Whereas technology insertion used to be one of the strategies to combat obsolescence, it is now seen as the means to rapidly enhance a platform's capability with more hardware performance and functionality or with additional software.
  • Applications such as naval combat systems or army combat support systems are moving away from traditional embedded systems to enterprise-like, server-based architectures. These types of systems, which are generally deployed in fairly benign environments, support multiple common applications and offer network-enabled capability across large platforms or groups of users. They also require high levels of support and maintenance.

Figure 1

(Click graphic to zoom by 2.2x)



Obsolescence mitigation still essential

While the value of technology insertion as a strategy to combat obsolescence is diminishing, its value for capability growth is rising rapidly. The basic ingredients of life-cycle management to counter component obsolescence are still an essential element of doing business. Even with a typical rugged product's five- to seven-year active life cycle, very few volume production programs mature conveniently within the first two years of a product's life. This means that the vendor must make provision for components as they go obsolete, or design in alternatives during their active life. Vendors must also offer extensive services to customers to preempt further obsolescence from impacting manufacture and support for extended periods of time, typically 10 to 12 years.

Future impact

Many of the changes identified earlier have decoupled root causes but are now revealing some of the true benefits of the COTS revolution. Whereas a COTS-based project implementation may have been force fit into traditional long-term military planning cycles counted in decades, the reality is now shorter. This allows the end users much faster capability growth in response to their rapidly changing needs. However, realistic estimates for equipment life of 10 to 12 years still require careful planning and component management through life-cycle service offerings. These offerings, such as those provided by GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms, sustain products beyond their anticipated active life cycle. Complementing this extended availability, technology continuity from generation to generation will continue to be an important factor as the concept of Pre-Planned Product Improvement (P3I) is increasingly replaced by unplanned urgent operational requirements.

To learn more, e-mail Duncan Young at [email protected].


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