Factory of the future is key to missile defense

Robotic vehicles glide silently across polished floors

Robotic vehicles glide silently across polished floors, their arms carefully cradling nose cones and other missile parts. Computer monitors flash with information, from the position of tools to the latest parts inventory.

Welcome to Huntsville, Ala., where workers are producing a key piece of the U.S. missile defense plan, the Standard Missile-3, in a gleaming factory designed with virtual reality tools and outfitted with the latest machinery. The same Raytheon Redstone Missile Integration Facility also produces the Standard Missile-6, a ship-defense missile. 

“This is really the first large-missile automated factory,” said Steve Larson, Raytheon’s director of Manufacturing Innovation. “For an affordable, safe, high mission-assurance type application, this is the only way to do it.”

SM-3s from the factory are a critical piece of the U.S. government’s Phased Adaptive Approach for defending Europe against ballistic missile threats.  The U.S. plan calls for sea- and land-based missile interceptors as well as a range of sensors.

Raytheon chose a legendary site for the new factory: the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. The complex built the first U.S. rockets in the 1950s and later produced the massive Saturn V that launched astronauts to the moon.

View of a missile assembly station

View of a missile assembly station

Raytheon designed the factory from scratch with the latest robotics and computer-controlled tools, said Randy Stevenson, Weapon Integration Center director.

“Nothing was left to chance and no idea was discounted,” Stevenson said. “We started with a blank sheet.”

Designers used a virtual reality chamber, the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, at Raytheon’s Missile Systems business in Arizona to test all aspects of the factory long before the first girders were placed in the ground.

“The CAVE allowed us to remove the typical trial-and-error process,” said Manny Gamez, manager of Advanced Manufacturing.

The new plant features a fleet of laser-guided transport vehicles that silently move missiles around the factory. The vehicles run on powerful lithium batteries and have their own internal positioning systems.

Automatic guided vehicle which, transports missiles throughout the factory.

Automatic guided vehicle which, transports missiles throughout the factory.

Safety systems bring the vehicles to a smooth halt if anyone approaches.

The vehicles have eliminated all 16 of the so-called “critical lifts” involved in building each missile, Larson said. And the factory’s machinery can handle future designs as well.

“It doesn’t even have to be a round missile,” Redstone Missile Integration Facility plant manager Angel Crespo said. “The capability is there.”

The first SM-6 left the new plant in February 2013, and the first SM-3s were delivered in June 2013.

In early 2014, the facility expanded, adding a new test cell to boost production and stay ahead of growing missile demand.

Published On: 01/12/2015
Last Updated: 12/11/2017