Quality Magazine

Key to Quality: Understand COTS, Prevent Disaster

February 25, 2009

Materials science is one of the oldest forms of engineering and applied science. One of the responsibilities of an engineer, or NDT inspector, is to investigate the relationship between the structure of materials and their properties, which can involve elements of applied physics and chemistry, as well as chemical, mechanical, civil and electrical engineering.

However, in today’s world there is a significant loss of understanding as to why one material is selected over another for a particular application. Each year, millions of dollars are lost when materials are substitued because they appear to be the same as the intended material, but fail shortly after they are put into service. An such example of this, was brought to the attention of the Americn public by CBS’ 60 Minutes in a segment called “The Troubled Waters of ‘Deepwater,’” which was originally broadcast in May 2007.

The “Deepwater” project was a massive modernization program instituted by the U.S. Coast Guard. One of the objectives of this program was to lengthen the 110-foot island-class patrol boats by 13 feet in order to add ramps for small inflatable boats and expand the superstructure. Something went very wrong and the first eight boats ended up with massive structural defects and had to be decommissioned.

The disastrous end to the “Deepwater” project can be attributed to the U.S. Navy’s reliance on a program called “Commercial Off the Shelf” (COTS), which enabled each organization involved in lengthening the patrol boast to use commercial products, instead of products specified by the military, to reduce costs and to keep up with the technology advances. And, while this seemed like a great idea, it was ill-conceived from the start because those who are using COTS must have extensive knowledge of “best practices” for the development, acquisition, modernization and maintenance of affordable ships and systems utilizing commercial items, and this was not always the case.

The bottom line is that in order to prevent major disasters such as “Deepwater” from occurring, organizations in all sectors, whether public or private, should leverage process control and quality management systems such as ISO 9001: 2008 or AS9100C, which is due out this spring, ensure that their employees know the requirements and comply with the requirements. If COTS is to be used by the organization, each person in the process must fully understand how materials relate to each other, to avoid costly mistakes.