Can COTs really cut it in the defence sector?

ES Oct13 Pg14 & 16 Power Gresham 1Managing director of Gresham Power Electronics, Jake Moir, reviews custom off the shelf (COTS) procurement developments for defence projects

In many ways there has already been a significant move to COTS. A shift has occurred from CECC released components to more commercially acceptable types, which are often also more widely available and cheaper. Standards have been relaxed, with rigorous national requirements being subsumed into more general international standards, as is the case with CE marking and Lloyds Rules.

This move has been almost invisible. It is COTS by stealth, imposed on design and topology, but it is there, and it is significant.

The broad concept of COTS is to replace one type of equipment with another, inevitably cheaper, commercial version. The key element is volume. Inevitably for defence equipment, volume is low. A Type 45 Destroyer carries only one helicopter starting rectifier, so the entire Royal Navy population is six, which offers zero opportunity for savings.

If volume is there, then an ‘off the shelf’ solution can be considered. That, however, only enables you to design against more relaxed requirements. The design cost is still there. For the shipbuilder there is a choice, if a commercial equivalent is available, but that choice is fraught with danger.

For the shipbuilder it may be a relatively simple choice at first sight, since in the short term, his requirement is to deliver a compliant platform to the Navy. Through-life support, however, is coming increasingly to the fore.

Through-life support

The original equipment manufacturer (OEM) has responsibilities in respect of obsolescence, but for the shipbuilder, simply installing alternative commercial equipment is not really an option. The situation, for the Navy, at least, is more complicated.

Manufacturers of commercial equipment operate in an extremely competitive environment and are, for that reason, continually improving their product technically, while driving costs down to be competitive on price. Commercial equipment, such as a major circuit breaker installed on a ship, will quickly become obsolete.

Its replacement, ten years later, will be an entirely different size with different fixing arrangements and maybe different cabling. This would be a nightmare on first refit, to say nothing of those issuing national stock numbers (NSNs) and controlling spares.

Gresham Power has found a solution in the form of ‘lower level COTS.’ This is designed to provide a middle way, which lies somewhere between ‘COTS by stealth’ and out and out COTS.

Interestingly, Gresham is a small business, with only sixteen employees. Despite this, it has equipment in many of the world’s navies from Type 45 Destroyers to French submarines, from CVF Future Aircraft Carriers, to the new Hobart Class destroyers in Australia. Currently the company is bidding for new business in Korea. Much of this is with a new generation of equipment.

Best of both

This is achieved by combining the Gresham team’s skills in designing and building for Naval applications, with advances and new technologies in the commercial field.

Rather like a formula one team, Gresham aims to maximise its skills. In the racing arena, the emphasis is on chassis and suspension design, systems integration and aerodynamics. For Gresham, the focus is on ruggedisation and packaging to assure performance in operation and environmental compliance. This is combined with the integration of third party technology. In the F1 environment, this would be engines and tyres, and for Gresham, it’s the latest power switching technology and control circuitry.

Both parties in this scenario have a close relationship with their technology suppliers to ensure ease of integration and continuity of supply. Both use this ‘lower level’ COTS philosophy to stay at the front without having to employ hundreds of people. The difference, is that the Navy doesn’t need Lewis Hamilton to drive Gresham rectifiers.