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Robots Making Warheads

It took eight years of planning and a lot of reassurance for Raytheon to convince the Missile Defense Agency it could let robots help build warheads for the nation’s new missile defense system.

Raytheon Weapon Integration Center Director Randy Stevenson shows off an Automated Guided Vehicle — a robot-guided trolley that moves a missile through the construction process.

Raytheon Weapon Integration Center Director Randy Stevenson shows off an Automated Guided Vehicle — a robot-guided trolley that moves a missile through the construction process.

Photos by Jeff White

The long, flat trolley-like device creeps toward a group of visitors on the shop floor of Raytheon’s new Missile Integration Facility at Redstone Arsenal. As it approaches the group, its sensors detect the obstacle in its path and the robot trolley veers away.

Among the firsts Raytheon Missile Systems can claim for its new Huntsville missile factory is the highest degree of robot-controlled and enhanced production of any missile facility the company has ever built, and perhaps the most automated of any U.S. missile maker.

On schedule for completion by the end of 2012, the plant incorporates the latest state-of-the-art automation and a controlled atmosphere environment for manufacturing and testing the company’s Standard Missile 3 and SM-6 interceptors before being sent to U.S. and Japanese customers.

The SM-3, in several variations, forms the engagement element of the Missile Defense Agency’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense. The missiles, part of the Missile Defense Agency’s “phased adaptive approach,” are deployed on U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers to provide protection against short- to medium-range ballistic missile threats.

The somewhat larger SM-6 is an extended range anti-aircraft missile designed to counter cruise missiles fired from hostile nations toward U.S. Navy vessels.

Eight years of planning went into the design of the Huntsville facility, says Weapon Integration Center Director Randy Stevenson, with Raytheon officials paying particular attention to ways auto industry automation could be adapted for missile production. Raytheon officials “visited Mercedes, Toyota and several of the major appliance makers,” he says.

The benefits of robot automation were obvious enough, but Stevenson says it was more than a matter of simply designing production processes to use them. “The Missile Defense Agency has very stringent standards on components that fly in space,” Stevenson says, and MDA wanted assurance that those standards would not be compromised in a change in production technology.

It was no easy sell to a defense agency not exactly comfortable with changes in production methods that had worked for decades. “We went to MDA and had to convince them of the benefits of using this automation,” Stevenson says. “We had to show them how it would save costs while maintaining quality.”

With MDA’s go-ahead, Raytheon designed a production facility unlike any other in the company’s history. “We’ve scrapped 35 years of production technology to create this factory,” says Stevenson. “There are no tools in this factory that were previously used.”

Precision production is critical. The entire factory floor meets the standards of a Class-A clean room. It is climate-controlled to preserve an even-temperature, low-humidity atmosphere. All equipment is grounded, and workers wear protective clothing.

Construction is underway on test cells at Raytheon's new missile facility. 

Missiles leaving the plant beginning in January 2013 will be virtually untouched by human hands. Except for the workers who unpack crates of components at the beginning of the production process, robots will handle the missiles throughout production and testing until they roll out the door. Use of robots provides a host of safety, quality and cost-saving advantages, Stevenson says.

Automation takes several forms, the main one being the Automated Guided Vehicle, or AGV. These mobile trollies, in 10- and 24-foot lengths and able to transport up to five tons, are computer-controlled with manual override if necessary. “They think for themselves,” says Stevenson. Replacing humans in the transport of missile segments and completed missiles, they also lift and place components onto workstations, where most assembly operations take place.

Through the use of special laser guided software, alignment of the AGV to a workstation is accurate to within 1/10,000 of an inch.

On the workstation, special ring interface adapters cradle the missile, allowing workers to rotate the missile and shift it up or down to achieve the best work position.

Plant automation takes more subtle forms, such as the Automated Torque Controllers used to replace the older style manual torque wrenches. Steve Larson, director of manufacturing innovation, says they eliminate out-of-torque conditions and verify that required fasteners are adjusted to correct values, while significantly improving operator ergonomics and, thereby, reducing repetitive motion injuries. “They even keep track of torque values, which gives us a history of the entire torque sequence for statistical process control,” Larson says.

AGVs transport each completed missile to a missile test cell 250 feet from the plant. These special concrete and steel structures are designed to withstand the accidental explosion of a missile by deflecting the blast up and out the back of the cell into a wooded area.

Back inside the factory, technicians man banks of monitors and computer screens to perform hundreds of tests on the elaborate computer and electronic systems in each missile. “Each room will be similar to a NASA control room,” Stevenson says. “These units have to perform perfectly. Once deployed, there is no way we can go back and redo them.”

Plant Manager Angel Crespo says the robots and other plant automation bring a number of benefits. “Our quality index should reflect improvement over our non-automated operations. Robots can help us achieve economies of scale, so we also expect better financial performance. Another big thing is safety. Our products are quite heavy, thousands of pounds. We will avoid humans being involved with product lift.”

Among the most sophisticated of modern weapons, missiles are complex devices made up of hundreds of electronic systems. Citing the benefits robots bring in production quality, Crespo says failure to automate material movements creates a multitude of opportunities for incidents that can degrade quality.

“It can be as simple as bumping into a wall,” Crespo says. “We have to decrease human error. From a production standpoint, we can plan all material movements ahead of time. We can look at actual production requirements and minimize our planning time.”

Raytheon’s robotics consultant, JBT Corp. of Shalpoint, Penn., found missiles to be “an unusual product,” according to Marketing Director Mark Longacre, but says the only real challenge was the high level of close coordination with several companies involved in the project.

In an era of mounting pressure on defense contractors to deliver greater value for the dollar, Raytheon believes its highly-automated new plant may set a standard. It all adds up to mission assurance. “Everything we do here is focused on mission assurance,” Stevenson says, “which to us means the units have to perform right the first time. It means absolute quality, performance to stringent standards, and that the missile performs when it needs to.”

Mike Kelley is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Huntsville.

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