In the world of Transparent Armor there are several factors to consider when choosing a supplier. I’ll attempt to tackle a few. Most start with the product itself. First, the product must meet the specified ballistic requirement or better. Assuming it does that, it must also meet the specified environmental requirements (if any). This would include a minimum level of optical quality. These specifications create a baseline for competition. Anyone who offers a product that can meet the minimum requirements is able to compete for award. So, beyond being better than the minimum, what are the discriminators? Product wise you have thickness, weight and price. Traditionally, price wins out, although, of late, there are some exceptions if a lighter or thinner product remains cost competitive. Supplier wise, the discriminators become past performance, financial stability and experience. US DoD has a few good systems to handle past performance and financial stability, ask anyone who has undergone a DCAA financial audit. However, in my opinion, experience is rarely (if ever) a game changer. This mystifies me. Especially when talking about Transparent Armor. Not only because it’s a highly technical product, but because I feel it directly affects all of the other discriminators listed. Take a look at what I mean:
Thickness and weight
Let’s be honest, most people don’t even know what Transparent Armor is let alone what goes in to its manufacture. How does one create a transparent composite which meets the requirements and is as thin and light as it can be while remaining robust enough to stop the specified threat every time? Knowing the answer to this question is a technical expertise that can only be earned by experience; years of R&D, years of trial and error and years of improvements to standard product. This includes both material and process. And there are a myriad of variables in there. An experienced company has this knowledge in both its personnel and standard operating procedure. Imagine needing to navigate from Philadelphia to Los Angeles with and incomplete map, or worse, no map at all. An experienced company has a detailed map with time and trouble saving notes spanning its folds.
Past performance and financial stability
Obviously one cannot have past performance without a past, good or bad. So add another point for experience there. Any company with a modest amount of time under their belt will have compiled a number of wins or losses and their record will illustrate their expertise and commitment to being a valued long term partner and supplier. Again, good or bad, numbers don’t lie. Financial stability follows the same logic. Experience has offered the data needed to make knowledgeable equipment and raw material purchases and the opportunity to benefit from continuous improvement initiatives. I would add that the Transparent Armor manufacturer’s supplier base offers and advantage as well. Long term partners are privy to preferred pricing and other benefits of consistent volume buys and often times get superior raw materials at prices lower than inferior ones. It also offers substantiated cost figures throughout the company, from process man hours, to tooling and even scrap rate. This eradicates guess work and leaves an experienced company with a verified cost structure and competitive price that remains stable over program life. The other perk here is that when an experienced company offers a warranty it is not just a business decision, but a pledge to stand behind a product that has historical performance data.
As I said before, in a competition where there are multiple products that meet the minimum requirements, price generally wins out. There is solid logic to that assuming it’s not short sighted. By that I mean total “cost of ownership” factors are considered. A low initial buy price does not necessarily make it the most economic choice. The tricky thing about transparent armor is that only time reveals if your decision was brilliant or boneheaded. A lot of times a buyer will have minor trouble with their go to supplier or be approached by someone with a lower price and will decide to “show them who’s boss” by moving from their once trusted source to a new vendor (let’s call them Vendor B). The supply chain keeps moving until the buyer is fully invested in Vendor B. In this scenario, everything seems fine for a year, maybe more, but then problems arise. Premature delamination or other failures start to spring up in the form of warranty claims and field failures. The buyer doesn’t even know what’s hit them. And now the credibility of their company is in jeopardy due to a failing supplier who holds months’ worth of backlog. The buyer thinks “I never had a problem with my last supplier. I figured transparent armor was transparent armor”. So saving a few bucks up front doesn’t always pay off. An experienced company has been through the ups and downs and has developed a price structure that supports total cost of ownership factors. This certainly doesn’t mean they will be more expensive. Remember the financial stability piece from before? That allows them to remain price competitive while also offering a more reliable and proven product. At the end of the day, I am simply cautioning transparent armor users to be dollar smart and chose an appropriate partner that can meet not only their short term, but also long term needs. Not just the cheapest option. Those minor up front savings could cost a lot more in the long run.