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Designing Military-Grade Products: The What, Why, and How

In product development, MIL-SPEC means designed to MIL-STD (military standard). This standard was developed by the United States Military as a means of ensuring a certain level of expectations for the performance and maintainability of military equipment. MIL-SPEC products are designed to perform at expected levels under a variety of harsh environmental conditions.

While meeting the military standard is required by funding agencies who purchase products used by, or developed for, the military, it’s now gaining in popularity in consumer, commercial, and industrial arenas as well. “Military-grade” as an attribute is applied to a wide range of consumer goods, from pickup trucks to picnic coolers.

What Are MIL-SPEC and MIL-STD?

Since its inception in 1945, MIL-STDs have evolved to embrace an ever-changing suite of performance characteristics. There are different standards that cover everything from handling of pyrotechnics (MIL-STD-1234) to digital communications (MIL-STD-1553), but in general, when referring to MIL-SPEC equipment, most people are referring to MIL-STD-810, “Environmental Engineering Considerations and Laboratory Tests.”

Tough Enough: Eric Kemner, one of this post’s authors, worked on M1A2 Abrams Tanks during his Army days. The tanks had to comply with a long list of military standards.

MIL-STD-810 covers what different types of equipment should be able to withstand given their use cases, and how the devices should be tested to ensure compliance. Included are environmental effects such as drop, shock, fog, humidity, sand, vibration, leakage, explosions, and more.

A MIL-SPEC qualifying product doesn’t necessarily have to test for all of these variables — just the ones that are relevant. Part One of MIL-STD-810 talks about the process of “tailoring” the device profile, based on how it will be used. Figure 1-4b (borrowed from MIL-STD-810), below, shows an example of how certain types of equipment might be expected to comply:

Standardized Testing: MIL-STD-810’s Fig. 1-4b helps companies decide which military standards apply to their product and how, depending on how it’ll be used.

There’s a growing demand for rugged design in sporting and outdoor goods as well as consumer electronics, particularly mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. The rugged mobile computers segment held the largest rugged devices market share in 2018. The Panasonic Toughbook was one of the first commercially available computers that was rated to military specifications and is noted as being MIL-STD-461F, MIL-STD-810G, and IP65 rated (to list a few). (Read our post about IP and NEMA ratings.)

In fact, the global market for rugged devices is expected to grow at a steady clip of 7 percent from 2019–2023. These devices are being adopted in new application areas, such as hospitality, retail, waste management, and public transportation.

When Should Product Designers Accommodate Military Specifications?

This escalating demand for rugged devices begs the question: Should product designers and manufacturers simply design to military standards and then sell these military-grade products to consumers? The answer is yes — and no.

Uncertainties abound when it comes to the application of MIL-STDs to consumer-grade goods. For manufacturers and product developers who want to define what “rugged” means, MIL-STDs are tried and true standards that serve as a great guide. They also lend credibility from a marketing standpoint.

In a commercial sense, the term MIL-SPEC or “military-grade” is a marketing claim — you can see this at work with a company called Mil-Spec Automotive. They take Hummers, which are already designed to MIL-SPEC, and refine them by adding luxury (leather-clad interiors, etc.) and power (6.6-liter Duramax turbodiesel V8 engines, etc.). The name of the company helps telegraph their brand message that their products are “intensely rugged” and “the baddest thing on wheels,” as they’ve been described by Forbes and Maxim magazines.

It sounds impressive because military products are clearly rugged. But the definition of rugged is not objective. Increasingly, manufacturers claim to be rugged or waterproof — also, “grizzly-proof” and “built for adventure” — without really explaining what that means. Water and dust ingress aside, there are no simple  levels to measure just how “tough” a product truly is.

While there are external, independent labs that can follow the test methods defined in the MIL-STDs (and report on compliance), unless the product is being designed specifically for a military-funded development effort it is not required that any developer conduct these tests, nor is there any regulatory agency overseeing certification. It’s up to the end user or product vendor to look under the hood with the understanding that “rugged” can mean pretty much anything.

How To Design MIL-SPEC

Once the decision has been made to design to MIL-STDs , whether the end use is in the military, consumer, or industrial space, the next step is to develop a detailed product profile and decide which of the standards apply — and how, based on the intended use case.

The number of specific requirements is large and covers a gamut of options, including impact, rain, humidity, fungus, thermal shock, gunfire shock, sand and dust ingress, acidic atmosphere, low pressure, immersion, explosive atmosphere, to name just a few. While these requirements might be necessary for a military product, only a select few might apply to a commercial product. Specific standards and tests should be defined early in the design process with a product requirements document, to set the expectation from the beginning for what a successful design will achieve.

The relevant parameters and associated standards will define the design approach for a product. MIL-STDs can impact the materials and components that can be used. Certain OTS (off the shelf) components, in particular electronics, are certified as MIL-SPEC.  MIL-SPEC hardware will generally conform to standard sizes and finishes commonly used in military products and be developed to pass a range of common MIL-STDs. Depending on the level of performance, connectors and components can be significantly more expensive than non-rated components.

Specific standards and tests should be defined early in the design process with a product requirements document, to set the expectation from the beginning for what a successful design will achieve.

In order to evaluate whether the device meets specific standards, it must be tested following the protocols associated with the selected standards (as defined in the device profile) to MIL-STD-810. This testing should be performed on the actual product, or on a prototype with production-equivalent materials and assembly. The testing can be performed internally, but third-party testing facilities are commonly used as they’re independent and also have calibrated test equipment.

Theoretically any product can claim to be “designed to MIL-SPEC” as long as some provision to satisfying one of the tests from MIL-STD-810 was made during the design process. Outside of Department of Defense equipment, there is no certificate of MIL-SPEC compliance. The takeaway is that MIL-SPEC can mean a lot — or it can be a bold marketing claim.

A more informative claim would be “Complies with MIL-STD 810F Method 509 Salt Fog,” but this kind of specificity is very rarely seen.

Examples of MIL-SPEC products

While there are many products that claim to be MIL-SPEC, not all are. Here are a few Bresslergroup has developed to specific requirements:

Speedbox
For the military, just any old storage box would not do. The box had to be stacked easily, be able to be hauled over extremely rough terrain, have lids that could be locked tight, and be waterproof. Our redesign lead to longer handles and lock plates. Grooved lids allow for easy stacking, like Legos. The Speedbox is an example of a rugged product designed for the military that has also enjoyed adoption from consumers.

BDAS
The Biological Decontaminant Accelerated Spray Plus is another product that is designed according to MIL-SPEC standards. The product, which is used to neutralize biological threats, is encased in high-impact plastic that provides drop and impact resistance, a must-have to prevent accidental dispensing of the chemical solutions.

Blue Ocean Rugged Megaphone
We redesigned Nielsen-Kellerman’s megaphone to render it completely waterproof and to improve on the acoustics. Designed to meet MIL-STD-810G 516.6 (drop test) and ingress protected to (non MIL-STD) IP67 the Blue Ocean is the World’s most rugged megaphone.

This version of the classic rower’s companion uses engineering principles to build upon the original and includes three interlocked horns for the best sound. A gamut of parts and wires necessitates foolproof sealing to ensure water-tight performance. Epoxy to silicone gaskets deliver that solution.

Industrial IOT: A Growth Area for MIL-SPEC

Tenna’s GPS asset tracker has become an invaluable tool for a variety of heavy-duty industries such as oil and gas, and construction. Through integration with Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors, these trackers relay information such as location, speed, and other diagnostic information to paint a complete picture for asset management.

Because these trackers must perform under harsh environmental conditions on the ground and because they’re often embedded with electronic sensors, being extremely rugged is important. While it wasn’t of particular importance for this product to be MIL-SPEC as it did not directly apply to this market or industry, this was an example of one project where the MIL-STD environmental test methods were used to help define how rugged the device needed to be and how it would be tested. As such, Tenna’s asset trackers are encased in thick-walled, glass-filled plastic, and all components are further fully potted in epoxy to protect from shock.

The Tenna asset tracker is a perfect example of how the growth in IoT — and specifically in this case, Industrial IoT (IIoT) — data through equipment outfitted with electronic sensors is driving growth in demand for ruggedized and even MIL-SPEC products. The global IIoT market is expected to clock an increase of 24.3% annually, reaching a whopping $991 billion by 2026.

The global IIoT market is expected to clock an increase of 24.3% annually, reaching a whopping $991 billion by 2026.

The growth in on-the-go industrial equipment with embedded electronics combined with the increasing consumer appetite for rugged products means that there will be an increasing clamor for military-grade design and production.

It’s a good idea for companies who want to gain a competitive edge in the marketplace and win enduring brand loyalty to consider designing for compliance with military standards as the starting point for their design and production conversation.