Network-Centric Defence Fuels Deeper Outsourcing

Tom Lovelock explains why choosing the right outsource partner is a key consideration for defence program managers.

The move toward network-centric communications and the need for highly advanced systems drives aerospace and defence primes to seek partners that have a legacy of IT, communications and optoelectronics capability. These partners should also offer a broad range of services, from design and printed-circuit assembly (PCA), to repair and field support.

Such capability is critical as armed forces strive to bond sensors and strike platforms together to develop advanced C41SR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems), which will enable joint forces to respond to any situation.

Aerospace and defence primes have long derived benefits from outsourcing the manufacture of boards and subassemblies to electronics manufacturing service (EMS) providers—recognising that such partnerships drive efficiencies, reduce costs, and increase flexibility within their operations.

However, with resources stretched to the limit—some are dealing with up to one-third more business compared to only 18 months ago—many primes are now looking beyond the task-based approach to a deeper and more strategic level of outsourcing. This is fueled by the need to incorporate advanced electronics into products and systems to improve performance, reduce operating costs, and extend the life expectancy of existing and future platforms.

Recent studies suggest that outsourcing, driven by a range of factors, is on the rise among defence primes. In addition to the cost benefits—estimated to yield, on average, 10 to 15 percent cost savings for customers—the outsourcing business model frees aerospace and defence primes to focus on their core competencies, including product development and program management. Engaging with a specialist contract manufacturer can provide primes with access to a broader range of services—including design, rapid prototyping, sophisticated test systems, complex PCA, system build, logistics support, and after-market services—all in close proximity to their own facilities. Customers can also leverage the buying power, scalability, access to new technology, Lean /Six Sigma quality culture, and supply-chain expertise provided by some of the top-tier EMS players. With the increasing sophistication of military systems, primes are looking for partners that have deep technical capabilities, specialist engineering teams, and a synergy with the primes' core technology. Progressively, they want their EMS partners to engage in the program at an early stage, performing, for example, tasks such as engineering system-architecture analysis and other activities that ensure ease of manufacture.

Whether developing new products, or improving the design of existing ones, the challenge for defence Lead System Integrators (LSIs) is to bring products and technologies online, within budget and on time. The availability, therefore, of a partner with a breadth of design-related services is quickly becoming a key consideration for defence program managers. It is not only their job to introduce new performance-enhancing technologies, but to be sure that these newer technologies are stable.

Therefore, they favour partners with a track record for successfully working with new packaging formats and integrating them into other high-reliability systems.

EMS providers, most notably the top-tier suppliers with global footprints, provide a diverse range of design-related services—from contracted design, design-to-cost engineering, life-cycle engineering, and mechanical design. Such design-engineering solutions can improve product manufacturability (DFM); enhance prototypes through design for test (DFT); optimise enclosure solutions through design for assembly (DFA) and reduce bill-of-material costs through design for sourcing (DFS).

The design service often extends to include recommendations on the final point of production. As the move to network-centric defence continues, the trend toward electronics outsourcing will accelerate as defence primes forge deeper and more strategic partnerships with their EMS suppliers, leveraging their experience in IT, communications, and infrastructure technology to harness the full benefits of their service.

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