Magazine article National Defense

Electronic Commerce Technology Spawns Virtual Supplier Base for Obsolete Parts

Magazine article National Defense

Electronic Commerce Technology Spawns Virtual Supplier Base for Obsolete Parts

Article excerpt

As major U.S. weapon systems continue to age, Pentagon officials are taking advantage of emerging techonology to grapple with a vexing problem that is likely to worsen during the next several years-the unavailability of spare parts.

Spare parts for platforms such as aircraft, ships, and trucks are becoming harder to acquire because many of the systems currently in operation were conceived and built decades ago. Often, the suppliers that supported those systems have exited the defense market as a result of drastic cutbacks in military procurement funding during the past decade.

Other companies with both government and commercial customers decided to shut down their military lines in order to pursue higher-demand and more profitable commerial opportunities.

Managers of weapons systems received a loud wake up call, for example, when microchip conglomerates such as Intel and Motorola ceased production of various defense components that the mi was not ordering in large enough quantities to justify keeping production lies open.

Microelectronics Market

Business from the Pentagon currently accounts for less than 1 percent of the microelectronics market. And while these electronic brains become outdated every 18 months, many Pentagon platforms are kept in the inventory for several decades.

Electronics and microcircuit manufacturers are generally not inclined to invest in defense production facilities when there is exponential growth in demand by the commercial market.

The problem is economic, say experts. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, the commercial market for integrated circuits will exceed $300 billion by the year 2000. Most integrated-iit manufacturers are not interested in diverting resources to nonstandard and limited-volume design and production of military unique microelectronics.

Platforms such as the B-52 bomber or the KG 135 tanker aircraft and the C-130 cargo plane, which were conceived in the 1940s and 1950s, for example, are expected to remain operational into the next century-giving them a service life of more than 80 years. The lack of needed spare parts to maintain them means that, at various military depots, work must be stopped because stock items cannot be obtained.

This growing concern by defense officials is pegged to "diminishing manufacturing sources" and has triggered a number of projects that seek to address the problem by relying, in large part, on information technologies.

The feeling of urgency is also compounded by the recent discovery that the shortage of parts is not limited to aging systems. The newest member of the Air Force fighter fleet, the F-22 air superiority fighter aircraft, has been found to have more than 200 obsolete parts, mostly microelectronics.

Obsolete Parts

Parts obsolescence problems for other modem systems such as the AWACS surveillance system, the -2 stealth bomber, and the Navy's F/A-18 fighter have also been reported.

"That is nobodys fault," says Glenn O. Rybum, program manager for CACI Inc. Federal, Fairfax, Vwinia He explains that, at times, when the government orders a weapon system, it does not necessarily buy the technical data, which becomes property of the contractor In the case of microelectronics components, upgrades occur so fast that even a futuristic aircraft like the F-22 may need parts that companies are no longer making.

The good news, he says, is that it will soon be possible for all U.S. military depots and manufacturning in centers to "custom order" the parts they can no longer acquire via existing procurement channels. That capability will be essentially facilitated by sophisticated in systems that converge in a "virtual enterprise."

Ryburn chaired a tutorial on "virtual ventures" during the recent 21st Century Commerce & CALS Expo USA in Orlando, Florida, sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association. …

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