Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) sounds simple, but the defense industry has special requirements

Posted by Gretchen Alper on Thu, Jun 30, 2011

The military and defense industries are big users of advanced camera technology. Sophisticated vision systems are essential for the safety of personnel as well as the effectiveness of weapons and overall military strategy on land, sea, and air.  The defense industry is a challenging market for suppliers. Products must meet detailed specifications and exacting standards, and the defense industry’s purchasing/supply chain systems can be difficult to navigate.

In terms of products, a major challenge is delivering leading-edge capabilities that also meet strict specifications. Often, defense systems are forced to rely on older technology, albeit robust and functional, in order to get an acceptable solution.

Alternatively, the defense contractors turn to the use of Commercial Off-the-Shelf (or Commercially Available Off-the-Shelf), or COTS products in order to have a shorter time to market and use the latest technologies.  But …does this really satisfy the total needs of defense contractors?

Ruggedization and a reliable supply chain to support long-term programs are critical factors in this market.

For most defense systems builders, ruggedizing COTS products is too time consuming and expensive option to do themselves. One option would be to lower the MILSpecs required in order to use a COTS product, but that is too risky for both business and safety/reliability reasons.

And, meeting a MIL-spec is only one step in evaluating a supplier. Even if a supplier can meet a specific requirement for a military grade product, there is still a supply chain risk if the contractor doesn’t choose their vendors carefully.  For example, the commercial supplier could change, or even worse, discontinue the COTS product. The long-term supply chain, maintenance and availability are just as important to defense customers as the product itself.

Before selecting a supplier, here are some other things to consider:


  • Are they committed to the defense industry?

  • Is their supply chain and product design optimized to support long term programs?

  • Do they have product life cycle management procedures, like change & control management?

  • Do they follow strict production and quality procedures?

  • Can they ruggedize (with certification) existing COTS products and guarantee long-term delivery?

  • Do they already have products that have been used in extreme conditions, including the battlefield?

COTS products are a good solution for lower costs and quick design but are not always the most logical solution when any particular requirements are needed.  Specialized companies who can ruggedize existing COTS products and guarantee long-term delivery or who can supply military-grade COTS products (sometimes referred to as Military Off-the-Shelf - MOTS) may be better option to obtain the latest technology with a lower cost of ownership and risk.

Topics: Vision System Optimization