What is COTS?

June 9, 2014

This is the first of a five-part series of blog posts by Jeff Lally, one of Vicor’s product managers, that explains some of the challenges and opportunities presented by the use of COTS products in defense applications. The series covers the most important electrical and environmental standards, and provides insight into how engineers can successfully meet military requirements with COTS components.

Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) is a term describing items sold in the commercial marketplace and used or obtained through government contracts. The concept of COTS started in the 1980s as a way to hold down costs in military products and has now become widespread.

A COTS product is usually a product tailored for specific uses and made available to the general public: these products are designed to be readily available and user friendly. A typical example could be an already available family of power supplies, where the requirement of the general market would be for a unit made to operate under relatively benign environmental and electrical requirements

Typical of these requirements would be a nominal temperature range of 0C to +45C, a hold-up period of 20-30 milliseconds, emissions that meet FCC class A or B emission requirements, and standard transportation ruggedness

This is in contrast to pure military requirements, where the temperature range may be -55°C to +85°C, up to 70-200 milliseconds of hold-up, strict electrical conducted and radiated emissions constraints, and a high degree of environmental ruggedness specifically tailored to the unique application

There now, however, exists a middle ground, where partial adherence to somewhat less stringent requirements becomes very attractive to military customers, as they can be met with modest modifications to an existing product family. Many of the requirements would be considered “industrial” in nature, such as a lower temperature operating level of -40°C. COTS products, such as power supplies, meet Mil Standards that define this middle ground.

In the next post in this series, I will look at Mil-STD 461, the EMI requirements for COTS power supplies.

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