Form-Fit-Function Solutions: A Modest Proposal for Defense Department Cost Savings

As the federal budget sequester rolls along with no end in sight, pressure mounts on the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to trim its spending. Recently, the Senate Armed Services Committee warned that unless the Congress and the White House could agree to a long-term plan to reduce government spending that the Pentagon would be looking at $450 billion worth of spending cuts over the next nine years.

That got us to thinking about ways in which the DoD has actually been using some common-sense approaches to the difficult task of balancing cost savings with military preparedness in recent times. One of these methods is called COTS (commercial off-the-Cost savingsshelf) requisitioning (please see our previous blog entry Best Practices for Choosing a COTS Power Supply Vendor). Another method is referred to as FFF (form-fit-function) replacement. Here’s some background on how we view this second approach to practical cost savings in defense requisitioning.

Some of the military’s weapon, communications and support systems can date back half a century, and may need replacement parts that no longer exist. The original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) may even have gone out of business. We often find that electronic parts used by the original power supply manufacturer have become obsolete, printed wiring boards and castings are no longer available, or original schematics no longer exist.

When the military faces system obsolescence or costly, temporary repairs of existing power supplies, Behlman may be asked to create form-fit-function replacements. The result is a newly manufactured power supply designed to match the “form” (shape, materials and interfaces), “fit” (size and all connectors) and “function” (delivering the same output power from the appropriate input power) of an original power supply. These meet the specifications of the original but also present opportunities to address defects or shortcomings in the original design, as well as improvements in performance and reliability through the application of modern technologies and manufacturing techniques.

For example, an aerospace equipment manufacturer needed a form-fit-function replacement for a 30-year-old power supply used in Air Force E-3 AWACS systems. Over 300 units were extant in aircraft, and the power supply failure rate had become unacceptable. By utilizing existing modules and circuits to replace those used in the original AWACS power supply, Behlman kept development time to a minimum and delivered two qualification units in record time. We also integrated several upgrades that improved performance, maintenance and manufacturability. This economical solution enabled the AWACS to perform its mission long after it would otherwise have become obsolete.

While we can only speak for power supplies, there can be little doubt that electronic and mechanical form-fit-function solutions of all kinds can greatly extend the useful life of military systems. And, due to advances in technology, design and manufacture since the original equipment was produced, it is reasonable to expect a replacement part to significantly outperform the original.  To achieve this higher level of performance, vendors must have the ability to:

  • Identify and outline all alternatives and options, as well as explain the pros and cons of each
  • Look beyond the provided specifications and make recommendations to improve performance, manufacturability and cost
  • Draw from and implement a wide array of proven COTS technologies
  • Ensure that the replacement meets all appropriate standards introduced since the original was manufactured (in power supplies, for example, MIL-STDs for shock and vibration or EMI/EMC compliance standards).

While limited program funding has made sustaining legacy weapon, communication and support systems more challenging than ever, taking the time to research and select the right replacement vendor is well worthwhile, as it can definitely keep our nation’s armament on the front lines long after the OEMs have vanished – and all on budget.

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