BAM Blog: chip makers respond to mil-spec market pressures

Before & AfterMarket (BAM) Blog: The military market is renowned for developing and implementing the most advanced technology available. However, a device that’s central to most of this technology – the semiconductor – is lagging in the military-market design space.

Intense pricing competition and restrictions on military spending have forced manufacturers to focus most of their design efforts on the high volume commercial market. To reduce costs and expand their sourcing choices, military and aerospace contractors have been moving from military-specification (mil-spec) components to commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) devices. The increased competition in sourcing options has driven down prices, but it has also decreased the value of the to semiconductor manufacturers; i.e., it’s no longer profitable for chip makers to design mil-spec devices.

The military market is now considered an ‘adjacent’ market, and the revenue for the military market relative to the costs to come to market with a new semiconductor rarely pays off anymore. Also, the opportunity cost is too high – chip makers do not want to make the investment required for a market that no longer has a high return over the life of the product.

The shift from mil-spec to COTS has created difficulty for military contractors. Military equipment requires devices that can withstand extreme temperatures -- and other environmental extremes. The old mil temperature range of -55 to 125 degrees Celsius is no longer a design target for the semiconductor companies. Instead, they target industrial markets as their worst-case temperature/voltage requirements if they go beyond commercial.

The extended lifespan of military equipment poses challenges as well. Defense and aeronautics systems are designed for lifespans of 10, 20, 30, or more years. COTS devices turn over considerably faster. Products that are discontinued by original component manufacturers (OCMs) become hard to find. Moreover, even if available, the equivalent COTS devices may not perform as replacement parts. Products designed in the 1980s were designed for the full military temperature range, but sold as commercial to reduce test costs. That is not the case today.

There are remedies to the end of life () and replacement dilemma. Companies that are authorized to manufacture and distribute EOL parts through extension-of-life programs provide a continuing source of devices by purchasing EOL inventory directly from OCMs and maintaining the inventory to OCM specs. If finished goods inventory is not available, authorized continuing manufacturers sources the die, masks, and IP of original devices and re-manufacturers the component to OCM specs.

However, contractors still face design challenges. Processor architectures designed for the long-haul are becoming rare. ARM may be the only choice left. Contractors can plan ahead – by engaging with product lifecycle management (PLM) specialists, designers can select devices with the highest likelihood of a long life and guaranteed continuing supply. Chip makers often share their product development maps with their authorized partners. Experienced companies like Rochester Electronics have PLM and EOL solutions to give users an advantage when looking toward the future.

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