One Supply Chain Monopoly Comes to an End

By Martin Hart

TopLine Corp. supplied photo

Over the last few years, we have been sounding the alarm over what we have perceived as a potential threat to U.S. defense — the very real possibility of a critical shortage of field programmable gate array components. These electronic devices — integrated circuits designed to be configured by a customer or a designer after manufacturing — form a vital part of many defense and aerospace guidance systems.

Without these mission-critical devices, warfighters might not fly, and critical defense guidance systems might not operate.

The threat, however, has been hiding in plain sight; there has been only one supplier in the nation qualified to perform a specific type of assembly service needed to produce these parts, specifically the attachment of copper-wrapped solder columns to the integrated circuits as one critical step in their manufacture.

Makers of the ruggedized devices have depended upon a single subcontractor designated on the Defense Logistics Agency’s Qualified Manufacturer List as a provider of copper-wrapped solder column attachment services for the entire field programmable gate array industry.

We maintain that such a monopoly is inherently dangerous because any supply chain dependent upon a single vendor is inherently vulnerable. Considering the ongoing military threats by foreign actors against the United States, it should be no wonder that we’ve been shouting that action is needed to develop a solution to resolve this vulnerability.

We have sounded the alarm, described the problem and proposed viable solutions through various channels. We wondered if indeed we were heard, or even noticed; but now I can say, happily, that it seems that the concerns and call to action have finally been heard after all.

Should a real field programmable gate array shortage occur — for whatever reason — the danger to national defense cannot be emphasized strongly enough.

However, the defense and aerospace industry at last has a solution and is moving forward to qualify multiple vendors for critical processes, including column attachment services. This remedy also requires a relatively low investment by device makers. Fabrication of copper-wrapped solder columns is not a simple matter and requires correct know-how, manufacturing equipment and proficient operator skills to achieve.

We can’t be sure why there has been a sea-change in direction. Perhaps global instability, the COVID-19 pandemic and the demonstrated fragility of the global supply chain has moved decision makers to be more proactive in responding to threats.

At a recent electronics manufacturing trade show on the West Coast, there was much talk of “onshoring” coming back to U.S. manufacturing. The talk was that supply chain uncertainties make it more advisable to build products domestically once again — particularly sensitive electronics — and that you can’t trust people who may not be your friends to make your proprietary military parts. Advances in robotics and automation, meanwhile, have boosted precision manufacturing speed, volume and capability to compensate for the lack of skilled assembly personnel that followed the pandemic.

Since radiation hardened, or RadHard, field programmable gate arrays are essential electronic components in sophisticated military and aerospace guidance systems, one would think that those who oversee the nation’s defenses would make certain that there are multiple, redundant sources for such important devices, and yet this has not been the case.

For years, a sole-source subcontractor effectively constrained the U.S. production of defense grade field programmable gate arrays, which are constructed using hundreds — and in some cases thousands — of solder columns, a critical subcomponent smaller than a grain of rice, to attach the array to the circuit board or circuit assembly. These columns, which are specially made pins, must be attached to the body of the array before they can be connected to printed circuit boards.

Although there are around 10 companies manufacturing RadHard field programmable gate arrays in the United States, only one small company was qualified to attach these pins to the component body.

Thankfully, this problem is being rectified. Military leaders in the command structure are keenly aware that risks and vulnerabilities constantly challenge the industrial base’s ability to seamlessly perform as expected. America is racing the clock to certify alternative subcontractors to attach solder columns to defense grade field programmable gate array devices. This is, at long last, good news.

Production of defense grade field programmable gate array and application-specific integrated circuit devices with solder columns occupies a fragile market, and the nation needs to broaden its supply base to include multiple suppliers who can make and attach solder columns for aerospace and defense grade components.

Happily, the Defense Logistics Agency has resumed field audits for certifying column grid array column attachment providers, and more certifications of vendors for column attachment services are imminently on the way. The 20-year monopoly of the single source subcontractor, one who provides 90 percent of America’s solder column attachment services, will fade into the sunset.

Although it takes time, the industry will soon have more choices for column attachment services.

Ensuring that we have the ability and capability from multiple redundant sources to provide these key mission-critical components will ensure the safety and security of America’s future militarily.

Martin Hart is CEO of TopLine Corp., a manufacturer of defense electronics based in Irvine, California.

Topics: Electronics, Industrial Base, Supply Chain

Comments (2)

Re: COMMENTARY: One Supply Chain Monopoly Comes to an End

Now to carry this out to all other components so that one company cannot "corner the market" for key components. Perhaps even to the point of the IP rights automatically going to the government upon acceptance.

Everett Puterbaugh at 4:08 PM
Re: COMMENTARY: One Supply Chain Monopoly Comes to an End

IP Rights reform is essential. It would be wonderful if NDIA would highlight the issues with the current system the way they did with the gate array problem.

Greg Donahoe at 8:20 AM
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