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Obsolete Federal Specifications

The reform of federal government acquisition processes has resulted in the wholesale demise of entire classes of specs, standards and commercial item descriptions. MIL-STDs and MIL-Specs once added up to 35,000 in the early 1990s.

Article From: 10/7/2004 Production Machining, , Director of Technology Services, PMPA

There are 19,116 cancelled or superseded commercial item descriptions, federal specifications and standards. There are also 738 federal standards, as well as 5,610 federal specifications, and only a few not-so-helpful hits on Google, if they show up at all.

The reform of federal government acquisition processes has resulted in the wholesale demise of entire classes of specs, standards and commercial item descriptions. MIL-STDs and MIL-Specs once added up to 35,000 in the early 1990s.

Standards For Procurement

The $436 hammers and $640 toilet seats are held up as poster children for a procurement system gone wrong. But the fact is the system evolved because the government had bona-fide requirements. However, meeting a government spec for chocolate chip cookies or canned apricots seems a bit excessive.

The use of these standards for procurement added an estimated 30 to 40 percent to Department of Defense acquisition costs. But the downside was real in the case of all government MIL, fed specs and STDs. The need for ensured performance when lives are on the line was their reason for being. As one analyst put it, “they represent dollars paid now to save lives later.”

The roots of the federal standards and specifications can be traced back to the Spanish-American War, when supply problems, goods damaged in transport and equipment lost because of poor packaging contributed to the death toll of U.S. forces.

But specifications have been with us throughout history, and our language is replete with phrases that owe their origin to a government purchasing agent. “Lock, stock and barrel,” originally coined by Sir Walter Scott in 1817, was adopted by a government buyer trying to buy muskets who learned too late that “rifle” could refer to just the rifle barrel.

“Sincerely,” a word that many of us use on our routine correspondence, originated with buyers of marble for state buildings in Rome. The Latin original, “sin cera” translates literally to “without wax.” (Wax was used to fill in the cracks of lesser-quality stone and give a false impression of luster.) Thus, a letter that was “sin cera” was one with the bare facts, unembellished and without wax.

There Goes Another Spec

It is 2004, and the federal government system’s cancelled specs and standards outnumber those in force by almost 3:1. The people who were specs experts have retired or have been replaced by private contractors. Almost every week, a part is RFQ to a precision machining manufacturer somewhere citing some obsolete federal spec or standard for material. If you’re lucky, someone on your raw material supplier’s technical staff might have a note or a file about these, but many times they don’t. Here are some sources to turn to for tracking down those elusive, out-of-date specs and standards:

  • Your raw material suppliers. Their technical support staff might be able to help you.
  • Online. Google might get you to a link that could lead you to another link.
  • The government search site at apps.fss.gsa.gov/pub/fedspecs/index.cfm. Plan on spending some time there. With a search function that requires you to know that the spec is cancelled in order to be able to turn up a valid result, you will get to learn all of the combinations that a spec or standard might have until you get a result you can use.
  • One of the electronic listings at the aformentioned government search sites. Scroll through them alphabetically or numerically and hope you don’t get a “Script Error” one page before your spec listing comes up.
  • Save the accompanying chart on Obsolete QQS Federal Specifications. For hot-rolled and cold-finished carbon and alloy steel bars, your item can probably be found there.
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