USPAE Launches $42M DoD Consortium


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Quite frankly, there was, and still is, a lack of transparency as you go down to tier two and tier three components, where we don’t know where they’re coming from. We don’t know the provenance, as you mentioned, and the vulnerabilities could be not just a single on/off switch that would force a component to fail, but real-time ongoing vulnerabilities of essentially streaming data and information back to bad actors who would like to challenge us. We saw that in the cybersecurity space, with the most recent example of that something that happened to us just a couple of weeks ago. You need both an appreciation and awareness of our vulnerabilities in the supply chain, everything from making Band-aids and aspirin to high-tech equipment, whether it’s a vulnerability broadly for the nation or more specific on the defense side.

One of the outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic has been a dialogue across the board about those concerns. There’s also the interaction now between DoD with Congress, so “the bill payers” in a good way. This is a bipartisan issue; the concerns are legitimate, and it involves both sides of the aisle. The key word in our title is “partnership,” and that applies to both DoD and the industry and serving as a conduit of information for the government. At the end of the day, we want to reduce risk, provide some certainty for our industry, and strengthen our play globally.

Feinberg: There was a period of time in the ‘90s where price was everything. Price drove the changes. Price is always going to be a factor, but would you say it’s becoming less so?

Sweeney: From the government side, and from my experience over the past couple of years within the acquisition world, price will no longer be completely dominant. That goes for resiliency, assuredness, and timing, as well. Those all need to be balanced now. Pricing will always remain a factor, but perhaps not the same dominant factor that it has been in the past.

Peters: Price is always going to be an issue, but the great thing about the Defense Electronics Consortium is that it gives us a contract vehicle for many different kinds of projects. Some of those projects could be opportunities to identify new technologies, processes, or capabilities that can help U.S. manufacturers make the things we need faster, cheaper, better. There’s a great opportunity for the DEC to really help drive that response.

Johnson: Is it fair to say that this boils down to the entire system working within desired specifications? Bad actors are a special case of electronics working outside of the desired specs, but you have the much more mundane task of making sure that the design is working within spec for the very stringent requirements within defense and military.

Sweeney: Specifications and standards, Nolan, are critical, and I think what we’ve done in DoD recently is look at a very archaic, bureaucratic approach to acquisition and development in which we had the same standards to build a new tank as we did to build a new software operating system or a satellite. They aren’t the same. We realize that what we did to the industry, quite frankly, was tough. It’s exposed the vulnerabilities, and it’s something that we have to be accountable for within the acquisition process, particularly for DoD here. With supply chain and subcontractors, we need to have confidence that what the DoD is buying and using is, in fact, what we thought it was. It gets down to one word: risk. We’re not going to eliminate risk obviously, but we’re trying to drive it down long-term.

Johnson: Under this Consortium, are there programs that are already underway?

Peters: The first project to flow through this Consortium is the lead-free initiative, which was funded by Congress, and we’ve already started on that with Purdue University, University of Maryland, Auburn University, and Binghamton University. Congress just allocated another $10 million in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act in December, so that’s our very first project and it’s already launched. We’ll have the kickoff meeting here in a few weeks. Once we have the initial meetings with the Department of Defense, especially the Office of Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment, we will have more direction about their other priorities, a better understanding of what we need to prioritize for recruiting members, and about some of the projects that would likely flow through the Consortium. The 2020 Industrial Capabilities report from DoD to Congress identifies a number of electronics industry needs that the DEC could help address.

The great thing about these consortia is that they are a partnership. Government will talk about some of the challenges they have—maybe it’s a capability, a technology, or a risk. The industry will say, “Well, listen, we’ve been working on these kinds of solutions or these kinds of answers.” And together, they determine the best fit and the types of projects that need to be funded to benefit both government and industry quickly.

Johnson: That begs the question: As a U.S.-based manufacturer, what is in it for me in this program?

Whiteside: I think that the value proposition for USPAE’s private sector members is access to U.S. government-funded opportunities. The DEC is going to provide this vehicle to identify future priorities that they’d like to fund. Members are going to have access to use those funds to conduct and collaborate with DoD and each other. It provides an above-board collaboration consortium where companies can work together on behalf of national security priorities and use that funding to engage in activities that they otherwise probably wouldn’t do if they were just looking after their own business interests.

Peters: One of the key things that Kevin mentioned earlier is that a lot of companies in the electronics sector are buried several layers down in the supply chain, and they typically don’t have access to the DoD. They’re working for another company who’s maybe working for a prime contractor, and so on. The DEC is a way to help the industry get a direct connection to the DoD and vice versa. It’s good for the DoD to have that connection as well because it gives them exposure to things they might not see otherwise. At USPAE we want to help companies understand where the leaders in technology are going. From the DoD, NASA, the Department of Energy, for example, bringing in technical leaders that are talking about what they see maybe two to five years down the road for their electronics needs, so that industry can better understand that and decide how they want to position themselves to help support those needs.

Johnson: That means that if a company is involved in electronics manufacturing and has some involvement somewhere in the supply chain for defense or mil-aero—and many of them do—there needs to be coordination between them.

Peters: That’s exactly right, and so we have a significant recruiting effort that we’re just now cranking up. We already have a number of companies that represent PCB. We have EMS companies. We have materials manufacturers. We’ll soon have academic institutions in here. I expect to announce a couple of prime defense contractors that’ll be joining here shortly as well. We’ve got a good cross mix, but we’re really looking to grow the membership.

Feinberg: Is there any involvement with other industry associations, like IPC or any others?

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