<h2><I>Local firm only small business involved in fortifying parts for DOD, one of only three businesses nationwide</I></H2><B>By CASEY HIBBARD</B> <FONT SIZE=-1><I>Contributing Writer</I></FONT>

A local, independent test lab is a forerunner in an emerging industry that has sprouted up as a result of changes in Department of Defense policies.

Pikes Peak Test Labs, Inc. in Colorado Springs is one of only three companies nationwide heavily involved in screening plastic-encapsulated integrated circuits for use in military applications. Called upscreening, the test lab qualifies commercial-grade components for temperature and other environmental extremes that systems may encounter when used by the military.

About five years ago, the Department of Defense launched a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) initiative to use commercial-grade parts instead of military-grade parts. However, the extreme nature of military environments requires the commercial parts be fortified, or “ruggedized.” This process proves more cost effective than purchasing the military-specialized parts and allows the military to use more state-of-the-art technology, said Paul Wiget, marketing manager for PPTL.

Wiget’s company ensures the parts can stand up to the test of extreme and harsh conditions. Defense-industry contractors like Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Atmel and Vitesse hire PPTL to screen parts and then recommend the best manufacturer to use. After the parts are manufactured, PPTL completes screening of 100 percent of the products for its clients.

The lab conducts a moisture-induced stress sensitivity test on parts to ensure they are protected against extreme humidity and puts parts through tests to determine if they can withstand temperatures from -55¯C to 125¯C, the range the military requires. Commercial parts typically can withstand temperatures from 0¯C to 80¯C.

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The parts go into computers, avionics equipment and weapons systems — items that the military must depend on in any condition.

Within the past five years, major semiconductor businesses have stopped or cut back on making military integrated circuits because commercial parts are more lucrative, Wiget explained. The U.S. market for military-grade semiconductors declined from about $900 million to less than $700 million between 1992 and 1997, according to facts in a report by the journal <I>Military and Aerospace Electronics</I>.

Within this framework, PPTL began upscreening more than two years ago when a major military contractor came to the company for help in developing methods of screening plastic parts for use in military applications. The contractor planned to start using plastic in ruggedizing parts, whereas the industry had been using ceramic packaging.

PPTL’s upscreening business grew from there. Within the last two years, upscreening has become a significant portion of PPTL’s operations, now comprising 30 percent to 45 percent of all its business. As a result, revenue growth has expanded by 30 percent.

“It’s significant to us,” Wiget said. “We’ve done screening before for military contractors, but this has become a significant base for us because of the military upscreening.”

And PPTL expects its upscreening operations to continue growing.

“I think it’s going to continue to expand because the semiconductor manufacturers are not going to support the military line, and yet the equipment manufacturers still need parts that meet military requirements,” Wiget said.

The only other known companies in the country heavily involved in military upscreening are Lucent Technologies Component Evaluation Technology, now called Integra Technologies, and Bell Technologies Testing Division.

PPTL has been in business for 11 years and handles testing and screening of electronic components such as integrated circuits and semiconductors. Overall, about 70 percent of the lab’s business comes from electronic testing, while the remaining portion does calibration of electronic test equipment.