Posted by John McHale.
Nearly everyone I speak to at defense electronics trade shows or for interviews over the phone brings up the COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) procurement term in some way. They make COTS products, use COTS practices, or think COTS is the worst thing in the world.
Everyone seems to have different definitions or different acronyms for COTS. I've heard GOTS -- government-off-the-shelf; ROTS -- rugged-off-the-shelf; MOTS -- military-off-the-shelf; NOTS -- NATO-off-the-shelf; or my personal favorite: KOTS -- kinda-off-the-shelf. A few industry friends tell me they see a lot of SHOTS or "sh "-off-the-shelf. I'll let you fill in the rest ... we are a family web site ya know.
Seriously though, COTS is a procurement term that is supposed to embrace technology standards, but lacks any standard definition itself.
At our magazine we like to think of COTS as being anything that is available out of a company catalog, even if it is tweaked or adjusted for a specific program. On the other hand custom would be anything that the government or end-user pays a supplier to develop from the ground up.
We've been talking about COTS for 15 years now. We've had shows about it and dedicated sections of our magazine to it, but many of our readers still differ on its meaning.
Some think the original intent of the Perry memo was to embrace commercial practices rather than a decree to run out and buy gadgets right off the shelf at Radio Shack or Fry's. In other words, to create standard product lines of MIL-STD components that can be bought off the shelf.
Many companies do offer such solutions, but just as many will buy a totally commercial component that does not meet military specifications and put it in a rugged enclosure.
Using COTS also cuts down on development time, which is very important to DOD program managers who want to get technology into the hands of the warfighter in Iraq or Afghanistan as fast as possible. DOD funding has been diverted from long-term programs to solutions that can be deployed near term to the warfighter.
Regardless, of how COTS is deployed or used, its dark side -- obsolecscne remains. No matter how you define it, designers still have to manage how they will support programs with components that will be obsolete in a few months or years.
Desginers of the avionics for the Orion spacecraft -- the proposed replacement for the space shuttle -- at Honeywell told me in January that managing obsolescene is one of their biggest challenges, but they cannot reach many of their performance golas without making use of COTS electronics and standards.
A decade and half after the Perry memo COTS has become a household word to those in the defense industry, it remains a kind of procurement wonder drug with wonderful benefits and occasionally some nasty side effects.
What does COTS mean to you? I would love to hear your COTS definition, your COTS success, or even a COTS horror story.
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