Military Embedded Systems

Meeting program schedules in a time of supply-chain uncertainty


March 03, 2022

Charles Falardeau

VP Operational Growth


Image: Arno Senoner/Unsplash

These days, program managers are trying to figure out how best to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of supply-chain disruption, while protecting their customer’s program schedule and supporting the warfighter.

How do commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) suppliers solve longevity and obsolescence problems – not just now, in this time of supply-chain uncertainty, but in general? Sometimes the solution is to find a substitute part, while other situations may require a board redesign. Another option is to buy enough stock in advance, making it possible to confidently satisfy orders over the years to come.

While the range of preparation and response will vary from vendor to vendor, we recognize that some life cycle management experts were able to be proactive in securing parts needed to build complete products, such as standard COTS boards, to meet orders already in their pipeline and plan for future orders.

Life cycle management programs, while not a new concept, must actually adapt to new circumstances. In “normal” times, COTS life cycle management efforts – designed to keep products alive for the 10 to 15 years typical of military programs – are driven by the inexorable march of Moore’s Law, where obsolescence is the price of performance and density doubling every 18 months for integrated circuits.

Moreover, the various components that support these integrated circuits also advance and become obsolete. While the solutions for blunting the supply-chain challenge involve many of the same tactics needed to address Moore’s Law issues, now is the time for COTS vendors to double down – if they haven’t already – on their life cycle management processes.

Some customers will turn to the parts-broker market for relief, depending on secondary sources unauthorized by the component OEM. COTS vendors should use components from these suppliers only when authorized sources are no longer available, and then only with the approval of the customer. All parts from these suppliers should be tested at authorized third-party test facilities to ensure that they are authentic components that meet the original design specifications and have not been subject to prior use or tampering.

Counterfeit parts are, of course, a major concern for the DoD. Experienced COTS vendors have long implemented and controlled processes designed to prevent counterfeit parts in the supply chain at any point in the product life cycle. The most important starting point in a secure supply chain is to buy components only directly from franchise sources, from the component OEM, or through authorized distribution channels.

Today, though, all program managers are in the same boat, trying to solve their supply-chain headaches while staying on schedule. That’s why it’s critical for customers to review their materiel delivery expectations and adjust them to reflect today’s reality. If their schedules assume a typical delivery schedule, such as “the usual” 16 weeks, they will likely be unable to meet their goals. For those customers that didn’t have the foresight to account for delays, it’s important to work with COTS vendors who took steps early to reduce supply-chain obstacles to help them stay on program schedule.

For that reason, it’s even more important for customers to embrace a first-come/first-served attitude, since getting “in line” early can help avoid delivery disappointment. Customers who reach out early to the COTS vendors who have taken innovative steps to lessen the pain of unpredictability will be better able to protect their customer’s program schedule. If the vendor has long experience in procurement process, counterfeit protection, and life cycle management, the end program will be better able to weather today’s stormy weather and get to port safely.

We are all working through unpredictable times, experiencing a global crisis – one that requires a measured and shared level of urgency at every level of the supply chain. From government and system integrators to COTS vendors and component suppliers, everyone needs to recognize the criticality of the situation, and together act upon it. Good planning and innovative thinking can help insulate important military programs from today’s market conditions.

Charles Falardeau is VP Operational Growth, Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions.

Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions

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