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So it's 'COTS' - Of course you need to demand that it be reliable!

Updated: Apr 5

Well, we are going COTS, so there is no point creating (or demanding)

reliability specifications for it.


I was just speaking to a couple of engineers – from different organizations – who were coincidentally struggling with the reliability of Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) systems. COTS is a funny term. Big contractors, governmental organizations, and militaries use the term ‘COTS’ a lot. But they tend to be the only ones who do.

So what is ‘COTS’ … really? A system that is designed and manufactured just for you is called ‘developmental.’ A system that has been designed and manufactured for someone else is called ‘COTS.’

Why would anyone buy something designed and manufactured for someone else?

(Perceived) lower risk.

The idea is that a COTS system is tried and true. All its onboard technologies are assumed to be ‘mature.’ You, as customer #2, will not be a ‘guinea pig.’ And by this simple categorization, we can immediately wave away ‘risk’ to the extent that we become enamored with something designed and manufactured for someone else.

And then of course there are ‘COTS’ systems that have really disappointed all previous buyers. These design atrocities or manufacturing experiments - by virtue of having previously been bought by someone else - can now be anointed as ‘COTS.’

I remember back in my military days when the army I was in decided to purchase some ‘COTS’ armored vehicles. They were ‘tried and true’ for the ‘harshest of environments.’ There was obviously no need to test them at all. Except they were totally inappropriate for our training areas and deployments and kept overheating, breaking their suspension, and otherwise falling apart in our unique terrain (everyone’s terrain is unique by the way.) So they had to be hastily, expensively, and haphazardly modified.

Risk was actually multiplied by applying the term ‘COTS.’

The only truly COTS items are those physically sitting on shelves in places like Wal-Mart, Target, or Coles. There are no comparably vast big box stores of MRI machines, main battle tanks, or liquid fuel rocket engines waiting for you to put into a shopping trolly. They are all going to be made and manufactured for you after you ask for them. Sure, they might be based on an extant design, but the number of tweaks, amendments, changes, and better manufacturing approaches that can be incorporated is surprisingly significant.

Even the most specialized or expensive machines in the world have options. There are always different suppliers, different models, and different variants of existing designs – all of which can have those tweaks, amendments, and changes applied to them.

This is all a given for many other organizations that routinely create reliable systems, comprising lots of different components from suppliers. And it starts with them demanding reliability.

This brings it back to my two engineering colleagues who were struggling with COTS in their day jobs. They had admitted defeat before even knowing there was a game to play. They were both working in ‘prime contracting’ organizations, delivering a substantial and complex system to governmental customers. Contracts with reliability performance clauses had been signed. But when it came time for the prime contractor to become the customer and procure all those really important sub-systems, they had no intention of including reliability clauses in the supplier documentation pack. Why? … because they were caught up in the illusion of COTS.

You must ALWAYS ask for reliability. You can ALWAYS demand data and documentation to validate claims. You can ALWAYS create your own test regimes to identify preferred suppliers. You can ALWAYS expect contractors to incorporate characteristics and other things specific to you when they make a so-called ‘COTS’ thing.

You might be surprised by what some prospective contractors and suppliers are willing to do to make you happy. And these are the contractors and suppliers you want to do business with.

You don’t get what you don’t ask for.

And you can’t ask for anything if you don’t know what you want.

Do you have any similar stories or experiences? Share them with all of us!

My name is Chris Jackson, and I help organizations do anything from solving ‘simple’ reliability problems through to facilitating cultural change that sees reliability baked into their products, systems, or services. If you think I can help out ... please reach out to me at Thanks for reading!

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