Six customized computers myths that you should know

One of the most common problems executives face is making business decisions about technologies with which they are not familiar. As they survey the crowded marketplace, corporate leaders often rely on information from self-interested vendors, or so-called conventional wisdom.

In the field of customized rugged computers, this has led to the rise of several myths, which can affect the executive’s ability to properly evaluate a purchase. Consider the following conversation:

The agitated vice-president drummed his fingers on the table. “Look, we are only talking about 10 to 20 tablets,” he said.

“That’s the problem,” responded, the procurement officer. “No off-the–shelf product meets our specs. Essentially, we have to create a new one. The NRE (Non-Recurring Engineering) costs are out of sight and only make sense for a run of a hundred or even a thousand.”

“I don’t see why this is a brand new product. It just needs some tweaks.”

The procurement officer sighed. “As far as the manufactures are concerned,” she said, “It is a new product. There are tooling and die costs, drawings, Engineering Resource Plans (ERP)…”

“Did you get bids from big computer firms that I recommended? Surely with their resources, the NRE shouldn’t be as much.”

“Not much luck there. Generally, rugged computer manufacturers don’t do their own customization, and when they do, they demand high-volume orders.”

“What about modified ?” asked the VP, “I have heard a lot about them. Aren’t those off-the-shelf products that can be easily customized? ”

“Modified COTS only give you options for connectors, not other specs. That doesn’t do us any good. I haven’t even told you the bad news.”

The VP looked up surprised. “There’s worse news?”

“End of life,” responded the officer. “We are going to have trouble getting support for any customized product. A couple of years down the road, we may have to pay a small fortune just to get a part.”

“That does it,” declared the VP. “I am tired of trying to square a circle. We are getting off-the-shelf products. Period. That should take care of end-of-life issues. Tell Operations to alter their requested specs. And forget about ruggedness, that’s what caused all these problems in the first place.”

At the end of our little tale, the VP acted decisively. Unfortunately, he didn’t act correctly. He and the procurement officer were the victims of computer customization myths. Let us examine just how many things they got wrong.

Myth 1
“Did you get bids from big computer firms that I recommended? Surely with their resources, the NRE shouldn’t be as much.”

The VP’s assumption that a large company would be able to perform the modification more cheaply than a smaller one is 180 degrees off the mark. Big companies have bigger expenses and often more cumbersome procedures. A smaller business would be more flexible in dealing with a customer request.

Myth 2
“The NRE (Non-Recurring Engineering) costs are out of sight and only make sense for a run of a hundred or even a thousand.”

In a way, this is an extension of Myth 1. Many large companies are only interested in big orders. A smaller, hungrier firm will be more interested in competitively pricing a small customization job.

Another mistake that they may have made is how the procurement officer researched this project. She may have only investigated computer providers, as opposed to computer customizers. She needs to find a computer manufacturer that doesn’t outsource the customization, and has in-house capabilities.

Myth 3
“Generally, rugged computer manufacturers don’t do their own customization, and when they do, they demand high-volume orders.”

Actually, some rugged computer manufactures do their own customization, and not all demand high-volume orders. As stated in Myth 2, look for a company whose business model includes in-house customization.

An advantage to purchasing from a provider who does their own customization is that they are likely to extend manufacturer’s guarantee to the modifications. This will save you the headache of being bounced between a manufacturer and a third-party who want to avoid responsibility for repair and replacement.

Myth 4
“Modified COTS only give you options for connectors, not other specs.”

This comment by the procurement officer reflects the widespread confusion about what modified COTS is and its advantages. I’ve seen similar mistaken comments that modified COTS only applies to software, not hardware, and vice-versa.

In recent years, the Department of Defense (DoD) has launched a drive to adopt more COTS products, because consumer items are quicker at adopting technological advances, have more robust supply chains, and cost less.

One problem with COTS is that items made for the consumer market often don’t match the specs required by the DoD. Enter “modified COTS,” a product that promises the advantages of COTS, but still enables the client to modify some of the platform’s characteristics.

There is no standard definition for modified COTS, so providers are free to describe it any way they want. It is likely that a provider told the procurement officer that modified COTS only offered options on connectors. If the officer had contacted different providers, she would have been given different options.

Myth 5
“We are getting off-the-shelf products. Period. That should take care of end-of-life issues.”

Actually, COTS may have worse end-of-life issues. Consumer products are notoriously mercurial. It is not unusual for a graphic card to become obsolete within nine months of being issued.

Often with build-to-spec, the buyer owns the design of the product and its customized components, so he has access to enough information to recreate it if he must. The comparable information of a COTS product is proprietary; even the DoD can’t access it. Replacing a single part in a single system has been known to cost the military literally millions of dollars.

Buyers usually ask about price, warranty and specs. They should also ask their computer supplier how long they support their products.

Myth 6
“Tell Operations to alter their requested specs. And forget about ruggedness, that’s what caused all these problems in the first place.”

While ruggedized computers remain a specialized niche field, customizing any computer can be difficult. Also, using a non-rugged computer in a challenging environment can lead to increased costs form lost data, downtime, and repair/replacement. These greater costs can be far greater than what you may save on the purchase price of a non-rugged item.

The trick to customizing rugged computers is not relying on unproven assumptions. “What everybody knows” is not the best way to evaluate a difficult purchasing decision. Do due diligence and find a professional who is experienced in customization. Examine the business model of the vendor, and determine if they are in the business of helping someone like you.

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