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  • Writer's pictureParts Life, Inc

SBIR Success: Conquering the Valley of Death and Fueling Mission Readiness for the DoD

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program is a government initiative aimed at providing funding to small businesses for research and development (R&D) projects with the potential for commercial or defense applications. This program is contracted in three phases:

  • Phase I for feasibility studies and proof of concept

  • Phase II for further development and testing

  • Phase III for commercialization.

However, navigating the SBIR program can be challenging, particularly when dealing with the notorious "Valley of Death."

The "Valley of Death" refers to the gap between Phase II and Phase III of the SBIR program, where many products and companies struggle to bridge the divide between research and commercialization. In this stage, businesses often face difficulties in securing funding and resources to bring their innovations to market. Overcoming this obstacle is crucial for small businesses to succeed in delivering cutting-edge solutions to the Department of Defense (DoD).

Parts Life, Inc. has successfully navigated the SBIR program's technical requirements and the "Valley of Death" by focusing on performance, reliability, and addressing the DoD's most critical needs. Parts Life has expanded our capabilities in direct response to the reverse engineering and manufacturing needs for parts and components within the DoD, addressing the most critical and essential DMSMS and obsolescence issues, and enhance reverse engineering, quality, and manufacturing to deliver parts and components to the fleet.

To facilitate SBIR Phase III success, we've enhanced our reverse engineering capabilities with advanced material scanning for analyzing alloy compositions in 19 replacement parts and components for B-52 bomber TF33 engines. Our team invested in a handheld XRF scanner, which leverages a comprehensive library of known alloys to quickly match the elemental composition of any metal component. This investment has significantly expanded our internal quality control and material certification capabilities, benefiting hundreds of DoD components beyond the SBIR program.

We also expanded our 3D scanning and dimensional measurement capabilities for intricate components. While working on the locked-in stud for the TF33, featuring mating spline teeth only .010 inch in size, we identified a need for advanced dimensional scanning. Our team invested in 3D optical scanning and measurement equipment with .00004-inch accuracy in a 3D space. This technology was used to precisely measure every part in our Phase II contract and is now routinely utilized in our laboratory for reverse engineering small components outside the SBIR program.

Our prototype integration facility has significantly advanced through targeted investments in dedicated manufacturing equipment for Phase II and Phase III SBIR contracts. This includes the acquisition of sophisticated machinery for rapid prototyping and low-rate initial production (LRIP) quantities, such as a 3D printing and 5-axis CNC mini-mill for intricate machined parts and high-precision turning centers for small, tightly-toleranced components. Additionally, we have implemented in-house non-destructive testing (NDT) capabilities, which allows for the swift detection of potential manufacturing defects using Fluorescent Liquid Penetrant and Magnetic Particle Inspection techniques. These enhancements bolster our adaptability as a resource for the DoD, empowering us to validate manufacturing processes and generate prototypes for SBIR contracts.

Two notable SBIR Phase III successes demonstrate how Parts Life, Inc. has skillfully navigated the SBIR program to avoid the Valley of Death and complete several Phase III contracts:

  1. Rapid Development and Delivery of RAM Fin Seals for the AGM-86B Air Launch Cruise Missile (ALCM): After the original manufacturer stopped producing these critical components, the Nuclear Enterprise Support Office (NESO) had been seeking a new source for over four years without success. Through a reverse-engineering SBIR contract, Parts Life quickly developed new seals and earned a follow-up Phase III Production contract within just three months of the Phase I award. We delivered over 800 new RAM Fin Seals only five months later, helping keep the AGM-86B ALCM mission-ready.

  2. Development of an Improved AGM-86B Engine Inlet Seal: The original design of the Engine Inlet Seal for the AGM-86B had a consistent and recurring issue with the failure of the vapor barrier material. During the reverse-engineering process for two SBIR contracts, Parts Life researched, manufactured, and tested an innovative new paint-on coating with similar elastomeric properties to the seal itself. The improved design underwent extensive review and testing by both the Engineering Support Activity (ESA) and the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) before being approved by the Air Force. Parts Life is now successfully producing and delivering production quantities of these improved Engine Inlet Seals under a Phase III Production contract.

To date, Parts Life, Inc. has completed multiple SBIR contracts, leading to 14 active or completed Phase III Production contracts. These contracts supply critical components for various platforms, including the TF33 Engine, AGM-86B ALCM, MK48 Torpedo, and F/A-18 Super Hornet. The SBIR program has been important to our growth and ability to serve the U.S. warfighter and the U.S. taxpayer. The strong Government teams administrating SBIR awards have helped us stay focused on the most urgent DMSMS issues, and avoid the Valley of Death.


Parts Life, Inc. is a certified AS9100D engineering service provider, manufacturer, and alternate source supplier for DMSMS and obsolete replacement components on military systems and subsystems. Our value-added reverse engineering processes address missing or incomplete technical data needed prior to manufacturing. Services, such as R.O.P.E.® (Rapid Obsolescence Planning and Execution) and 5R® (Reverse Engineering, Remanufacturing, Recertify, Repair, Replicate) deliver manufacturable data with source approval to manufacture replacement parts. In our Prototype Integration Facility, parts and components are manufactured and tested for form, fit, and function to ensure each piece meets and surpasses OEM requirements. Our electronic, electric, and electrical manufacturing capabilities include wiring harnesses and electronic test sets.



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