Reliability Starts With Process Integrity

Without overstating the obvious, in the last two years an increasing number of companies are introducing components and products with extremely high levels of integration. Systems on a chip (SOC) have advanced to such high degrees that instead of having the standard external logic and passive control circuits, these components are internal to the integrated circuits. This yields two very important benefits. The more integration into a single chip package, the less real estate and fewer components are required at the printed circuit card level.

Generally speaking, the smaller the component count, the higher the overall reliability as there are fewer single points of failure with less exposure to the ambient environment. Encapsulating a circuit in a potting type of compound can further achieve higher reliability and ruggedness against shock and vibration stresses.

Think of a crowbar that you can buy from any hardware store. It is a single article, comprised of iron that has been tempered at high temperatures to increase its strength. Now ask yourself how often you have seen a crowbar fail? If you wanted to further reduce the incidence of a crowbar failure during a leveraging operation, you would keep a spare crowbar handy. In reliability speak, this is called redundancy, and it is a significant design mandate for high reliability applications.

At the component and system level, parts and products are categorized into three main reliability classes. Most common to everyday consumer applications is a rating called “Commercial.” The component's or product's reliability is guaranteed to continue to operate between zero and 70 degrees centigrade. 22°C to 26°C is considered to be a comfortable room temperature range, so while 70°C seems very hot with 60°C on an IC package burning your fingertips, industrial and military ranges on the high end can go up to as high as 155°C with a cold tolerance down around -55°C.

Other parts used in specialty applications can operate at lower temperatures and move to even higher extremes. Without moving into a technical paper here, I wanted to present the relationships between temperature ratings and reliability. That is to say that the broader and the higher the temperature range, the more reliable the component or system. Also, the cost to produce and screen the component goes up, and consequently this increase is reflected in the wholesale or retail price.

In a report issued by the Department of Defense titled “Excess Inventory and Contract Pricing Problems Jeopardize the Army Contract with Boeing to Support the Corpus Christi Army Depot,” Boeing, a regular supplier of military grade products, was found to have gouged the DoD beyond belief. The Army paid significantly higher prices to Boeing than if it would have procured the same parts from DLA. For example, DLA 2009 Unit Price: $12.51; Boeing 2009 Unit Price: $644.75. Boeing Refunded: $556,006. And, DLA 2009 Unit Price: $7.71; Boeing 2009 Unit Price: $1,678.61. Boeing Refunded: $76,849.

Here's a quote from the report:

    AMCOM officials did not effectively negotiate prices for 18 of 24 high-dollar parts reviewed because neither AMCOM officials nor Boeing officials performed adequate cost or price analyses, and Boeing officials submitted cost or pricing data that were not current, complete, and accurate (7 parts). We calculated that Boeing charged the Army about $13 million or 131.5 percent more ($23 million versus $10 million) than fair and reasonable prices for the 18 parts.

I could make that argument that Boeing may have performed extra screening or special inventory management that would have upped the cost, but these parts were identical out of the box. The Defense Logistics Agency was buying the exact same parts manufactured and tested to the same reliability levels.

I also could not help but notice that this data was using the 2009 pricing from the DLA. The US went into economic meltdown in 2008. So, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, as the report concluded, Boeing was able to rip us off via military expenditures because the purchasing people did not do their jobs correctly. As the report also mentions, the purchasing people were buying replacement inventory even though there was excess inventory on the shelves. To quote from the report once again:

    The Army is procuring parts from Boeing instead of using $242.8 million to $277.8 million of excess DoD inventory to satisfy CCAD requirements.

We started this article talking about reliability. Reliability starts with reliable people. No matter how you cut it, you will be paying more for industrial and military grade components, but if the military is spending this kind of money without real-time checks and balances, I tend to think that there is not enough reliable cost oversight, and if we want to stretch that American dollar, we should think about creating a watchdog group to keep an eye out on companies like Boeing that, according to the same report, only had to pay back less that 10 percent of the excessive charges to the Army.

Now, if I was not entirely ethical and a shrewd business guy, I would be encouraged to continue my price gouging activities as I would still yield 90 percent of my original gouge. Words fail me to express how wrong this is when people are out of work everywhere and our military spending is off the charts. Our $700 billion dollar bailout was justified in part by having to help companies that were too big to fail. Apparently we also have military contractors too big to sanction. That bodes ill for any kind of permanent resolution to these pricing practices.

23 comments on “Reliability Starts With Process Integrity

  1. SP
    December 19, 2012

    So true. Instead of having many discrete components on the board, its better to have a SOC. The BOM size reduce, so is follow up to get the components to be assembled. I guess with a good test plan, the test effort for the board also becomes more planned and systematized. Wonder do we still use buffers, transceivers and other small ICs outside on the board.

  2. ahdand
    December 20, 2012

    True and without reliability there is no process for the long run. In the world of business you do need to have a smart plus relaible systems to make things work for you. Its tough to handle certain situations you get but nothing else we can do about it

  3. Barbara Jorgensen
    December 20, 2012

    I thought the day of the $600 dollar hammer was behind us–my bad. Watchdogs, including those of us in the media–do see this stuff and then we move on to the next crisis (such as printed 3D guns…) Anyway, there is so much process and paperwork pushed through the system that looking at prices is a luxury sometimes. You make some great points and I am going to start forwarding the post!

  4. William K.
    December 21, 2012

    So a system gets integrated into a single IC package, and all of the calibration is now done in software, and there are no external adjustments to compensate for things changing. BUT the interface with the realo world is still outside that SOC, likewise noise filtering and line buffering. Or else the board full of parts is reduced to one chip on a board without much protection and because it is an SOC it is not available from multiple sources. 

    That may be god for a disposable consumer item that is discarded at first malfunction, and it really was not very important anyway. BUT it is no good for any mission critical system.

  5. itguyphil
    December 22, 2012

    It's all about the process!

    Then you turn that process into a system (meaning you put people into the process).

    As good management, you tweak the process like a freak, not antagonize the people.

  6. ahdand
    January 26, 2013

    Yes if you know how to manage and keep the staff happy you are well off here. The problem les on people who does not have a clue on the process management.

  7. itguyphil
    January 27, 2013

    You're preaching to the choir.

    There are many organizations that do not understand this principle.

  8. ahdand
    February 10, 2013

    Then whoose fault is it ? I dont put the blame on the employees.

  9. itguyphil
    February 15, 2013

    Essentially, it's always leadership's issue when things go wrong. They're supposed to see the big picture and know when to change things up, make difficult decisions, and lead their people.

    If things are going wrong internally and externally, the leadership is mostly to blame.

  10. ahdand
    February 15, 2013

    Well pcharles, I dont put it 100% to them. If things go wrong the root cause maybe them but there are others who are working on it and they havent done their jobs properly. That is why things go wrong. Its their responsibility as well.

  11. itguyphil
    February 16, 2013

    It is. That's why it's called leadership. You lead under all circumstances.

    If a company fails at something, no stakeholders look to a rogue employee. They always ask the Owner/President/CEO for answers.

    That's for a reason.

  12. ahdand
    February 22, 2013

    “If a company fails at something, no stakeholders look to a rogue employee. They always ask the Owner/President/CEO for answers.

    Maybe but then the question points out at the employees from the CEO or whoever who has been questioned. SO indirectly it comes towards the employees in the end.

  13. itguyphil
    February 23, 2013

    Trust me, an employee is only as good as the management team above them.

    If you've ever had a good boss/manager, it will encourage you to work well and get things done. Because if not, you'd be gone in a heartbeat.

    But if you're left to do what you want at your own pace, it's not your fault in the end, it's managements.

  14. ahdand
    February 27, 2013

    Pocharle: Not really, I have seen many good employees and even teams which are brilliant but their boss is horrible. Anyway if the bioss is horrible and cunning its easy for him or her to brain wash the good guys too.

  15. itguyphil
    February 27, 2013

    I don't know if it's so much brainwashing  as much as it is poor leadership bringing down the morale of good employees.

  16. ahdand
    February 28, 2013

    Not only poor leadership charlse. If they know what they have to do they should follow it up and do it. If not its pure ignorance from their side

  17. itguyphil
    March 11, 2013

    That's the thing. We assume  that they know what they're supposed to be doing. In many cases where companies fail, the leadership thinks they're doing the right things but in essence, it may be the opposite.
    And being able to detect that from within is sometimes a difficult thing to do.

  18. ahdand
    March 12, 2013

    Pocharles: But assumptions are based on their performances isn't it ? We does not assume just by looking at some one. 

  19. itguyphil
    March 20, 2013

    They are based on the short term outcomes of their actions. If they are poor, it leads to the thoughts I brought up.

  20. ahdand
    March 21, 2013

    @Pcharles: If it's a short term plan, then fine. I thought it's a long term decision.


  21. itguyphil
    March 25, 2013

    Much like some of the defined process models, a long term plan can consist of multiple short term plans. This way, it keeps deadlines tight and people focused on the now.

  22. ahdand
    April 9, 2013

    @Pcharles: Yes it can be a combination of a couple or more short term plans. Many do follow that methodology to be in the safe side. I think investing properly will make the difference.     

  23. itguyphil
    April 17, 2013

    It always does in some way. But not taking the time to make these plans is where failure is rooted.

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