Designing leading-edge military hardware requires the use of state-of-the-art Integrated Circuit technology to meet system performance targets and yet this work sits sometimes uncomfortably alongside efforts to support and maintain legacy systems that are up to 30 years old. These designs stretch back to the early days of the semiconductor industry when “The Military” drove semiconductor demand and wielded considerable influence. The rapid pace of technological advance and commoditization of ICs together with the associated semiconductor business models have not been easy to manage for the defense industry. So, what lessons can be drawn from the design perspective to minimize future component supply issues.
Strategic supplier selection
The lifecycle model
Much has been written about the divergence of military and consumer product lifecycles. Although they often follow quite similar paths, the considerations given to individual aspects of product design and support differ dramatically. A consumer product might only have a life of two years where products for industrial, transport, energy and defense markets can be in excess of 30 years. From the design perspective, it is critical to engage with suppliers who have a business strategy and philosophy that will maintain support for their components over the entire lifecycle from design start to spares and support contracts.
Protecting design resources
Design resource is a valuable commodity and success of a product will be very strongly dependent on the quality of the design work. However, the correct choice of components, of course, is about far more than selecting a good parametric fit.
One of the most obvious ways that companies direct or steer their design teams is by use of “Preferred Parts Lists” and/or “Approved Supplier” schemes. These attempt to strike the right balance between the freedom of design and the need to lock down every new item used in a complex pre-approval system. The risk is naturally that an over-constrained design process can lead to uncompetitive products that are late to market.
Selecting preferred suppliers is a matter of individual company strategy, the important factors will likely include the four critical elements from the Lifecycle Model cited above. From the design perspective, innovation encapsulates a number of ideas, including the competitiveness of the component or sub-system, the underlying technology roadmap and the willingness of the supplier to support the design–in process. In fact, support is becoming a key factor as defense budgets tighten and design teams are faced with tighter resources, shorter development timescales and increasing design complexity.
The defense industry and now other long lifecycle industries are becoming more aware of just how much design resource is consumed, sustaining old products where obsolete components have forced a design change. In acute cases, we have known customers expending up to 40 or 50 percent of design resources on such activities, painfully aware that this valuable effort should be going on new product development.