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Warning: DoD Procurement Practices May Make This Plane Crash

(08/28/2004)

By R. Dale Lillard, President, Lansdale Semiconductor, Inc., Tempe, ARIZONA

Tempe, Arizona - The commercial life cycle of a semiconductor is about four to seven years, but military weapons systems normally have an operating life of about 25-30 years. As semiconductor life cycles become shorter and technology advances, more military programs are placed at risk by obsolete parts.

In an effort to deal with the problem, the DoD, in 1987, instructed the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to develop the GEM Program that would be limited to obsolete and non-procurable semiconductors. In 1987, DLA awarded the first GEM Program contract, an R&D contract, to Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) to demonstrate the feasibility of producing semiconductor replacements using the BiCMOS process. Lansdale, an aftermarket parts producer, failed in its bid for the contract because the bid was made using the BiPolar process that DSCC did not want to use, even though it was the process by which the original electronics for the system were made. In 1990, David Sarnoff Research Center (now Sarnoff Corporation) was awarded a contract to validate efforts under the 1987 SAIC contract. From 1992 to 1997, the DLA and the DSCC jointly managed the validation effort on the GEM Program. In 1992, Sarnoff was awarded another contract to validate the capability of the 1990 contract and to enhance and expand the results. In 1997, DLA implemented the GEM Program to be administered by DSCC. Also, Sarnoff was awarded the production contract as a sole-source contractor. In 2002, Sarnoff was awarded the follow-on production contract.

Aftermarket Parts

The GEM program was tasked to only reproducing obsolete parts that were not available from any commercial source. There is still a thriving market of companies who have obtained the tooling and manufacturing processes to manufacture older parts using the original processes. This market, termed aftermarket parts by its manufacturers, include several large and small companies dedicated to continuing manufacturing the needed older parts for some of our most common battlefield weapons systems such as the F-15, F-16, F-18, AEGIS and the Patriot missile system. These aftermarket parts, since they are manufactured with the same original process, are identical to the original parts. Unfortunately, it has been discovered that some of the GEM parts, though they may appear to meet most specifications, may not be compatible with the older systems.
However, parts produced using the BiCMOS process are not really interchangeable with parts produced using the BiPolar process, and when they are substituted, there can be consequences. Private testing efforts, using a DSCC certified laboratory, have disclosed behavioral incompatibility between the parts affecting performance and reliability.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the GEM program has begun to deviate from just making unavailable parts; now it is also responsible for manufacturing parts that are already readily available from the aftermarket companies parts made using the original manufacturing process.

Though it may, on first glance, appear that it is possible manufacture these parts at a lower per unit cost, one must factor in the original R+D and the overhead that DSCC pays Sarnoff from the GEM program. One manufacturer estimates that Sarnoff has produced 35,000 parts for an average of $1143 per part (not including what DCSS spends to support and market the GEM program) while that manufacturer produced 2,199,380 parts for an average of $27.19 per part.

However, this problem pales compared to the potential technical disaster that is looming over our battlefront weapons. The GEM manufactured parts are not made with the same manufacturing process as the original parts, so there is a potentially deadly incompatibility that may not be readily apparent to the DoD engineers or the bench technicians who repair the black boxes of these weapon systems

Operational Consequences

To make the situation worse, DSCC has now allowed GEM parts which were manufactured to compete against aftermarket parts, to have the same identical NSN standard part number. This means that a BiCMOS GEM part would be marked the same as the same part manufactured with the BiPolar process and put into the same parts bin the bench technician uses to repair black boxes. Therefore, technical and logistics managers and technicians are not aware that the GEM part is not an identical part with identical performance. They, as well as the engineers for the weapon systems, will not even know that these parts may degrade the performance of the rest of the system and will not know to test the system. When there is a failure on the bench, they will just reach for another part (BiCMOS or BiPolar) and assume that the component is fixed.
An example of this potential problem can be seen in a generic standard electronic part called MC 10525 in which the GEM version failed in a private, DoD approved test lab. This is a part that is readily available from an aftermarket company using the original manufacturing process. This part is a vital component in many radar systems including the F-15. From all documentation that we can see, it appears that DSCC has only tested the compatibility of this part in F-15 systems. The part failed at high temperatures on the bench during the private test and placing it into a system where it had not been tested could cause problems such as working too slowly or too quickly for the existing system and causing an electronic meltdown. It also could be more susceptible to an electrostatic discharge that could affect other systems in the weapon causing them to misfire or fail.

These potential failures due to the bureaucratic problems in the GEM program, demand that DSCC take immediate steps to stop their illegal and deadly practices and rein in the GEM program pulling it back to its original purpose. DSCC must also recognize that GEM parts are different from aftermarket parts and legitimate GEM parts must be labeled and tested for potential incompatibility for all the weapons systems affected.

For more information, contact R. Dale Lillard, President:

Lansdale Semiconductor Inc.
2412 W. Huntington Dr.
Tempe, Az 85282
Telephone: 602-438-0123
Fax: 602-438-0138
Email: Lansdale@Lansdale.com
Home Page: http://www.lansdale.com
 

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