How to mitigate military component supply issues

How to mitigate military component supply issues

Technology News |
By eeNews Europe

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.

Skills gap
Expanding the idea of design-in support, it has become evident in the areas of power and high-performance analog ICs that form the core of Linear Technology’s products that a skills gap is emerging. It is easy to look at a system with huge FPGAs and think about the challenges in digital terms while overlooking the difficulty of powering the parts. Sub one-volt cores, consuming 10-20Amps require good transient response of <50mV over all conditions making loop response, layout, voltage reference accuracy and load monitoring critical. Add in higher PCB densities, increased clock speeds, concerns over conducted emissions and operating temperature considerations and these quickly become analog and RF problems. The number of designers specializing in these areas has diminished while the need for solutions is on the increase, hence the skills gap. A good supplier will address this with applications support, evaluation boards, circuit analysis models and with products.

An example is LTC’s range of μModule voltage regulators. Resembling a surface mount IC, each product includes system-in-a-package solution that aims to simplify design and minimizes external components. Internally, the layout and design are optimized for electrical and thermal efficiency. Built to the industry’s highest standards, these modules offer reliability approaching that of standard ICs.

Commercial considerations

Another factor in the selection of components at the design stage is that of cost. First, it is important to distinguish between component price and solution cost. Using the example of the μModule voltage regulator above, the solution cost equates to the unit price, whereas looking only at the DC-DC controller and MOSFET unit costs would not take into account the passive components, magnetics, design time and technical challenges associated with developing a high-efficiency switching regulator. Again the skills gap may play into this calculation. Furthermore, the lifetime cost for a given solution will be heavily dependent on the long-term availability of the component. If a redesign is required, the costs could easily dominate the lifetime cost as the example below shows. Component 1 has to be redesigned twice whereas component 2 remains available for the lifetime of the program.

Clearly, even a reduced unit price with each redesign is insufficient to offset the redesign costs, which may be far more substantial than those indicated here in reality.

Designing around component obsolescence
When selecting components for a new design good component engineer specialists can give a vital perspective on the track record of suppliers from their experience, but this is not simply a question of looking in the numerous on-line, commercially available parts databases. Frequently, these have been shown to give mathematical predictions of impending obsolescence that fail to take into account individual manufacturer policies. For example, at Linear Technology, we have a non-obsolescence policy. This means we still offer for sale the LT1001, now more than 28 years old and still good for new designs. A close supplier relationship will bring with it access to inside information on component popularity, manufacturability and new process technologies that assist in making a more informed choice for new designs. It is therefore important to dedicate time to cultivate such relationships.

The risks of reworked & counterfeit components
The Senate Armed Services Committee investigation into counterfeit electronic parts in the U.S. Department of Defense supply chain reported in November 2011 that a flood of counterfeit parts entering the supply chain and that the cost to the electronics industry is estimated at $7.5Bn annually. A quick search of YouTube finds numerous examples of component salvage operations and sales outlets for what amounts to scrap or misrepresented components. While efforts are being made to tighten up on illegal activities, the simple solution is not to buy from unauthorized sources or brokers. Careful selection of suppliers and a close working partnership will also assist in solving the most intractable obsolescence issues. Linear Technology will, under strict conditions, offer components in die form to enable customers to engage third party packaging where the original package piece parts are obsolete. From a design perspective, this can be a helpful option where no other changes or PCB redesign is required.

Design Managers should be major stakeholders in the supplier selection and development process and should encourage designers to develop close working relationships in pursuit of their design goals.

Strong innovation, stability of supply, high quality and a track record of long-term commitment to the Military and Aerospace market are all elements that form the basis of dependable supplier relationships.

Component selection is not just a matter of finding a part that fits the performance need. First-class design support from the supplier will reduce time to market, assist in bridging any skills gaps and facilitate informed choices in term of component selection. This will deliver the most competitive solution and reduce the longer-term risk of obsolescence problems.

Beware of misinformation, the Internet is full of instant answers and data but the knowledge and experience of component specialists and good contacts at suppliers will serve higher quality information.

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