January/February 2011

Don't be misled by commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology labels

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

It is easy to label a product with the term commercial off-the-shelf (COTS), and lately it is being done more often as a way to lead buyers to believe it should be the only criteria to select a product. Automation and control professionals should consciously make decisions based on their operational goals.

COTS started with the military's commercial off-the-shelf initiative based on the premise that military programs would benefit from new technology, lower initial cost, lower maintenance costs, and economies of scale by using commercially available products. The Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) define the term commercial used in COTS as technology customarily used for non-governmental purposes and has been sold to the general public and supported and evolved by the vendor, who retains the intellectual property rights. This is consistent with the general use of the term COTS in industrial automation.

The notion of COTS corresponds to the idea of the experience curve, which states the more times a task has been performed, the less time will be required on each subsequent iteration. This relationship was probably first quantified in 1936 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the U.S., where it was determined every time total aircraft production doubled, the required labor time decreased by 10 to 15%. In the 1960s, the Boston Consulting Group illustrated each time cumulative volume doubles, value-added costs fall by a constant and predictable percentage over a wide range of industries. Actually, early process control systems used very little standard parts and required a great deal of customization making them expensive, limiting their use. This changed over time with standardized systems that lowered cost and enabled more companies to take advantage of distributed control systems.

COTS opportunities in industrial automation can take many forms. Open architecture systems are a higher form of COTS using vendor-supported open network protocol standards, which enable manufacturers to build products that work together and can be interchanged. Selecting COTS products is relatively straightforward when considering software, such as database, web infrastructure, operating systems, and web services. The utilization of mobile computers and Ethernet in automation systems has been enabled by cost-effective and highly refined commercial technology.

The cost savings from adopting COTS products can be significant, but evaluating automation and control COTS alternatives can, in some cases, be challenging. Picking a proprietary sole sourced item that will give your company a superior production outcome can be a sound decision that should be consciously made. A simple example might be a highly proprietary analyzer that provides significantly better production yields. 

Careful consideration of COTS is most important when selecting new plant automation and control system architecture because the selection may positively or negatively impact plant operations efficiency. 

These are some questions to consider during evaluations:

  • Does this product tether me to a single vendor for repairs and maintenance?
  • Can this product be easily replaced with offerings from a number of other vendors?
  • What is the impact on system performance?
  • What is the tradeoff in maintenance and long-term support?
  • What are the real benefits of committing to a proprietary product?
  • Is the value gained worth higher long-term costs?

Just as with any other buzzword, blindly using COTS as the only buying criteria is a bad idea; it is the job of automation professionals to analyze what is best for the benefit of their company.

Please share your thoughts at blydon@isa.org.