Off the shelf makes sense

A shelf something could easily be got off
We hear in the news that our military has wasted around £1 billion failing to come up with an armoured vehicle so had to buy off the shelf. That piece instantly transported me back to my days at British Airways.

We got involved in an EU project to design a better check-in system. Great idea - check-in systems were incredibly fast, but had a terrible user interface. We went through months and thousands of pieces of paper in the set up process and finally got to the first real stage. And the Euro-powers-that-were told us the first thing we needed to do was design a computer terminal. From scratch. So that we had the best equipment for the job. We pulled out. If you want a way of interacting with a computer you grab a PC of the shelf. To design such hardware from scratch was ludicrous.

Firstly it would have been extremely expensive. I think the cost per unit was four or five times that of an off-the-shelf PC. Secondly all this time, effort and money could at best produce maybe a five percent enhancement in terms of matching our exact requirements. And most important of all, that 'at best' was never going to happen. The fact is that after years of deliberation by committee we would end up with a worst of all worlds device that was worse than the PC was back when we first started, let alone today's model.

Of course there are circumstances when off-the-shelf isn't the answer. But my experience with BA and other organizations (particularly public ones, or ex-public ones) is that many people have a ridiculously strong urge to build something bespoke that provides nowhere near the benefits that would be needed to outweigh the vast increase in cost over off-the-shelf. It wastes time, it wastes effort and very often you end up with something worse. My suspicion is that this is true of most MoD purchasing.

Now, time for my cup of coffee. Should I use an off-the-shelf kettle, or design something myself that will end up taking three months to build, will cost £527.47 and will start leaking after two weeks use. Hmm. Difficult one. Better get a committee together...


  1. As your picture shows sometimes the shelf is bare so starting from scratch is the only answer, especially if a solution to a problem has never been attempted.

    Therein is the conundrum that many companies face; an expensive start up with the trials and tribulations of first mover status and the potential rewards or waiting for something that is only 90% of what's required but is not yet available, and more to the point when it is will be available to all competitors.

    It all depends really on whether a system or a product is sufficiently leading edge to warrant the increased risk of self build.

    Your check-in system example should always have been an off-the-shelf design especially as it was to be used by other airlines; however the yield management system behind it should have been (and was) designed in top secrecy in house.

    The problem with military spending is that it suffers from a surfeit of owners armed (!) with their own pet ideas who constantly change their minds about what is required from the end product - naturally enough as conditions in the field change rapidly and new ideas emerge - however no designer can hope to come up with a satisfactory solution for every owner let alone a world beating design if there's no agreement on what's required. Look at the NHS system and its design (and cost) if you want another example. It does make me fearful about building two new aircraft carriers when the science and practice of war is changing so quickly.

    Mind you defence procurement is probably a lot more rewarding than buying xmas presents for specification, no design statement (other than "not that one") and the budget is never enough.

    Happy Christmas!


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