Supplier defects: preventing the ultimate sacrifice

Supply chain failures seem inevitable these days, but are especially disconcerting when they indicate a larger systemic problem in critical equipment that is supposed to save lives. The U.S. Army just announced a recall of 44,000 Advanced Combat Helmets (ACH) manufactured by ArmourSource LLC (formerly Rabintex) due to concerns that they provide substandard ballistic protection. Another similar recall of 34,218 ACHs manufactured by Gentex Corp. occurred in May 2009. The Army did not reveal exactly how they discovered these defective helmets and what led them to quarantine some of the inventory. This recall affects about 4 percent of the one million ACHs in inventory. The helmets do not meet Army specifications. According to an announcement by the Army, “There is evidence that ArmorSource and Rabintex ACHs were produced using unauthorized manufacturing practices, defective materials and improper quality procedures which could potentially reduce ballistic and fragmentation protection.” The Army is not sure about either the exact risk to soldiers wearing the recalled helmets or whether any are being worn in a war zone. In the Gentex recall, the company alleged that a subcontractor had falsified certificates of compliance for the steel screws that it supplied. The exact nature of the ArmourSource recall has not been reported yet.

This situation highlights supplier management and supplier performance issues that the Army needs to address and raises more questions than answers. Some of these questions are:

  • How does the U.S. Army in particular and the U.S. military in general determine whether suppliers are meeting its specifications and meeting its quality standards on an ongoing basis?
  • How will the Army determine that the defective helmet problem is not more widespread than reported, particularly if so many aspects of ArmourSource’s manufacturing practices and process seem to be out of control?
  • What is the Army doing about sub-tier supplier risk? What processes and practices are companies such as Gentex using to manage their suppliers and ensure that these suppliers are complying with their standards and government standards? How are these standards communicated to suppliers?
  • How does defective sub-tier supplier material get into the product in the first place? And how do these quality escapes to the end customer, our troops, occur?
  • How does the military track and trace products in the field? In the case of products critical to the lives and safety of U.S. troops, why is there no traceability? Soldiers have been give instructions about how to determine whether they are using a defective helmet so that they can exchange their helmets, but there seems to be no tracking system in place to know immediately where defective product has been deployed.

While the suppliers in question are saying that the defects affect a very small percentage of the helmets, why did it take the customer, the Army, not these prime contractors, to discover the defects and in this case, long after the fact? And how did these suppliers allow the defective product to escape to the customer? The supplier management and supplier quality systems do not appear to be in control, and the chances of more widespread problems are very high. The Army needs to do a thorough investigation of its procurement, supply management, and quality processes and practices and uncover how such situations can occur and potentially overhaul its approach to supply management and quality management. Then, it needs to take the necessary preventive measures to avoid these risks in the first place. Quality should not be left to the end user, our troops, to uncover defects in the equipment that their lives depend on. The recalls and finding solutions to these problems are costly to all. But no one should have to pay with their lives.

For more information on sub-tier management, here are a few of my previous posts:

Supply risk: the sub-tier or multitier challenge

Sub-tier supplier challenges loom even for the savvy

Sub-tier risk factors: trying to control the uncontrollable 

Sherry R. Gordon

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