Military Embedded Systems

COTS technologies: major benefits for the consumer, new challenges for the manufacturer


February 27, 2017

Ross Hudman

Digital Systems Engineering (DSE)

The switch to commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products can be beneficial for the consumer and manufacturer with new military environmental testing methods.

COTS technologies
More affordable and readily available, the defense industry has transitioned from specifying custom OEM (original equipment manufacturer) electronics to COTS systems. Compared to custom designed electronics, these systems are popular in the defense industry for reducing:

  • Non-recurring engineering (NRE)
  • Unit costs
  • Development cycle time
  • Production lead times

Additionally, derivatives such as modified COTS (MCOTS) are delivered quicker, more affordably and slightly customized, while still using proven technologies and processes.

The problem: environmental qualification requirements
With the defense industry’s shift toward COTS systems, the expectation had been that all COTS products would be pre-qualified; however, in most cases, COTS electronics were designed for a wide range of industries, which don’t require the same set of standards.

Testing military technologies, like rugged displays, for harsh conditions has become a challenge with new COTS systems—yet increasing demand is making COTS technologies the new industry standard, as they are more affordable and available quicker than specialized products.

In short: military environmental testing is much more challenging now.

  • COTS products are not pre-qualified, because many of the technologies were designed for multiple industries with less demanding standards.
  • Modified COTS (MCOTS) products raise the question: Is previous testing valid if two products aren’t identical?

For many manufacturers, the financial implication of testing all products to the full gamut of certifications are unrealistic—and can cost upwards of $100,000. This is particularly challenging for manufacturers that rely on a robust product portfolio.

COTS manufacturers and the defense industry: the new discussion
Now, the defense industry realizes the struggle technologically innovative companies are faced with. As a result, several questions were considered:

  • Are third party validation tests required for COTS systems?
  • Who is responsible for managing and funding these tests?
  • Can tests on similar products be analyzed and deemed relevant in lieu of test reports?
  • Can components of the finished product be analyzed to forgo testing?

The solution: multiple validation methods
Ultimately, there is no one solution; instead there are four situational methods that can simplify this validation issue. First, utilizing established product lines not only allows for decreased NRE figures and time to market, but also a synergy in design and production. Components such as video cards, power supplies, enclosures, liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and connectors are used in multiple product families to give an assurance of compliance.

Now, these four validation methods make for more efficient and affordable COTS military testing. With collaboration between the manufacturer and the purchasing entity, validation methods are chosen based on the specific requirements:

1. Meets by Design
Generally, this is the preferred validation method to market products under. After dozens of configurations are successfully tested, it’s reasonable to predict compliancy for manufacturers with a strong engineering background and experience.

2. Meets by Analysis
In some cases, this validation method may be used in lieu of tests. For example, a fully sealed product that meets the IP67 rating for water immersion will undoubtedly pass the MIL-STD-810F humidity test. Where applicable, an analysis of testing methods, material properties and components can be a sufficient alternative to a third-party confirmation.

3. Meets by Similarity
This validation method is relevant when a slightly different configuration has been previously tested and there are substantial reasons to deem the results valid for multiple products. A full understanding of the differences between the two products is critical to determine the validity of similarity. Therefore, implementing similar design techniques, including component selection, coating processes, isolation methods, connector sets and user interfaces facilitates this validation process.

4. Third Party Test
Manufacturers should ideally have a long-standing relationship with world-class third party laboratories in the event third party testing is required. Additionally, manufacturers should manage this third-party validation process and guarantee passing results to the customer’s agreed upon validation parameters.

With COTS technologies, military and aerospace platforms can be technologically advanced at fraction of the cost. Alternate methods of validation including analysis, similarity and design in lieu of 3rd party validation tests allow the shift to COTS hardware and all of its advantages to be fully realized.

Digital Systems Engineering since 1995 has operated as a privately held U.S.-owned small business (FAR 19.102), designing and manufacturing technology-driven display and computer products. Learn more at


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