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Understanding military, defense electronics manufacturing

By Steve DeWaters

U.S. military appetite for printed circuit boards is $1.1 billion with roughly $300 million (and growing) for military rigid-flexible printed circuit boards. To the benefit of some EMS providers (and disadvantage of many others) engaging new military and defense opportunities for EMS providers will be as much about knowledge, competency and trust as it will be about footprint or size. Defense electronics is a mentality, not a market.

With the changing world of defense and security, there are sea changes in the making at the Department of Defense (DoD) that will have lasting effect upon the defense electronics supply chain sure to impact the manner in which electronics manufacturing services (EMS) providers conduct their business in this sector.

The nature of war itself is changing and the tools warfighters rely on are evolving to become soldier-centric; dependent on constellations of integrated information systems and mechanisms at their instant (and local) command and control.

It will become as though an entire battlefield – every nuance of it – can be seen through a single eyepiece; allowing the individual soldier to become a force multiplier.

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Refining defense contracting practices, supply chains
The myriad devices required to accomplish this will depend upon modernized acquisition and supply chain practices and a well-prepared group of opto-electronics manufacturers; because the future battlefield is a high bandwidth, on demand, and diverse mix of integrated RF / microwave and optical signal paths.

U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates said in April 2010, “The perennial procurement and contracting cycle… of adding layers and layers of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms, that take longer and longer to build, must come to an end.”

His words sent a concussion wave across the desks of defense planners, politicians, and military electronics supply chain constituents bent on developing large weapons systems.

Whether Gates can successfully tilt the argument remains to be seen. But, the first salvo was delivered by Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Logistics, Ashton B. Carter, September 2010, in the form of a ‘Memorandum for Acquisition Professionals‘. (PDF, defense.gov)

The memorandum outlines 23 initiatives aimed at refining defense contracting practices and emphasizes performance-based contract awards for relevant warfighter applications.

Technologies for EMS providers targeting defense
Of importance to the EMS industry is the multitude of new U.S. military technology applications the asymmetric enemy portends; all of which contain significant opto-electronics assembly content. Below are some key military technologies outlined in the handbook, ‘U.S. Army Weapons Systems 2010-2011′ (Skyhorse Publishing) while noting some points relative to the electronics printed circuit board and EMS industries for current, and wannabe, defense contractors with intent.

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Force protection technologies include devices like the electromagnetic rail gun that could replace the Phalanx Systems on navy ships. The Rail Gun system involves 80+ megajoule capacitor banks and solid state switching up to 5.5 mega-amps in 10 milliseconds.

Command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) technologies include: Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) systems; Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) technologies, stealth satellites; hypersonic aircraft, RFID tagging, and certain UAVs.

There are also calls for precision lethality technologies like Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and other missiles, as well as retrofitting pre-existing ‘dumb’ munitions inventories with Precision Guided Kits (PGK). JDAM involves GPS and actuator motor technologies.

Miniaturization applications include shrinking the size of conventional missiles and avionics; replacing rigid circuits with rigid-flex circuit boards in aircraft power distribution, and micro sensors.

Unmanned vehicle technologies range from man-portable programs such as Dragon Eye, to catapult-launched vehicles such as Scan Eagle, to the mid-altitude loitering Predator, to the high altitude loitering Global Hawk.

A number of military blimps such as the ISIS (Integrated Sensor IS Structure) program (Lockheed) will also emerge. Blimp technology includes managing high frequency materials in phased array radar configurations. Northrop Grumman’s unmanned vehicle, Fire Scout, involves actuator motors, rigid flex circuit boards, antenna suites, data links, and shielded avionics.

Rigid-flex printed circuit boards
Of particular interest is the rapid adoption of rigid-flex printed circuit boards in military applications, which reduce connector content, reduce weight, and can be formed to more efficiently utilize space constraints.

Today, most EMS providers are managing their businesses to assemble rigid printed circuit board assemblies. Meanwhile, the market for the U.S. military’s appetite for printed circuit boards is $1.1 billion with roughly $300 million of it (and growing) for military rigid-flexible PCB work. Its important for EMS providers to keep in mind the majority of this work also some value-add assembly. High frequency signal management will dominate new designs.

Power distribution and thermal management will be areas of continued development and, keep in mind, there are only so many more transistors that can be crammed into a piece of silicon.

Reduced graphene oxides and other materials currently being explored will also allow a continuous increase in transistor densities that will lead to commensurate changes in substrate and final systems assembly considerations.

Reliability will become the primary concern, compelling EMS providers truly committed to defense electronics to get involved at the outset of component choice and front-end systems design.

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EMS size, footprint
Given this emerging defense electronics landscape, astute EMS providers will begin [today] looking at how to support coming applications.

This means examining the impact radius the EMS provider has on the defense electronics supply chain.

Today, there are many standalone EMS facilities with local presence but with less market clout than a regional EMS providers with secondary facilities; lesser still than large, multi-national EMS footprints.

But, to the benefit of some EMS providers (and disadvantage of many others) engaging new military and defense opportunities for EMS providers will be as much about knowledge, competency and trust as it will be about footprint or size.

Defense electronics mentality
In a recent gathering of military / industrial representatives at HANSCOM Air Force Base, Lt. Gen. William Lord, CIO-Air Force, delivered a presentation summarizing the defense perspective.

Paraphrasing [Lt. Gen. Lord could have been speaking directly to EMS providers reading this article], he said: “Help us avoid acquiring yesterday’s technology tomorrow”, adding, “We don’t really want shiny new toys…we need problem-solving innovation…and we rely on you to help us do that.”

The implication here is it doesn’t matter what size a company may be to effectively engage the military. They’re looking for help and they’re looking for competent, trusted suppliers who can synchronize their capabilities with military needs.

Most EMS providers think the ‘cake’ for the military is the delivered electronics assembly and all of the problem-solving expertise; compliance initiatives, certifications, and managing federal acquisition regulation (FAR) flow down paperwork are the collective ‘icing’ on the cake.

In fact, it’s usually the other way around. I suggest you first understand the ‘cake’.

This may mean changing paradigms from being mere electronics assemblers to becoming robust partners that do their homework and foster a trusted DoD-EMS supplier relationship.

Legion are the anecdotes of printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturers and EMS providers who serendipitously engaged some military electronics work and therefore call themselves ‘defense manufacturers’.

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But, serendipity is not a strategy and with rapidly changing DoD priorities, whatever work obtained through fate may not withstand the scrutiny and expectations of a leaner, meaner supply chain.

The current landscape for contract electronics manufacturers attempting to penetrate [or strengthen current] military electronics portfolios must involve an over-the-horizon capability to plan; strategize, and engage defense electronics opportunities with a problem-solving mentality.

EMS companies need to pay attention to these developments and prepare for a world where electronics assemblies are eclipsed by optics; where knowledge trumps size; and where strategy and tactics are as integrated at the business level as they are on the battlefield.




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