A Missile Maker
Kim Ernzen creates Factories of the Future
Kim Ernzen has always been fascinated with the physics of flight. As a child, she wondered how it was possible for a heavy metal airplane to carry hundreds of people through the sky. That fascination led her to a career making things that fly fast and think even faster.
Ernzen majored in aeronautical engineering at Wichita State University in Kansas. She was one of few women in the field and graduated in the top tier of her class.
“I remember when I first decided to sign up for aeronautical engineering, my friends thought I was joking,” said Ernzen. “I had to prove myself every day – prove that I was capable. My background or gender shouldn’t have mattered, but it definitely ignited my competitive spirit.”
That spirit held as she achieved various leadership positions at Raytheon. Today, Ernzen is vice president of operations for Raytheon Missile Systems, where she has been charged with creating factories of the future, a role she calls “awe-inspiring.”
“In the automotive industry, a new car will roll off the assembly line in 90 seconds,” she said. “We build very complex systems, but don’t necessarily have the volume of a consumer product. Our products are difficult to develop and build, (yet) we are leading the industry in executing automation where it makes sense, including placing more robotics in our factories and leveraging technology into our manufacturing plans for not only today and tomorrow, but for five or 10 years down the road.”
The trick, Ernzen said, is to ensure Raytheon is agile enough to adapt to the demands of the fast-moving future. “We are heading into complex new markets, such as hypersonics, so we have to stay in front of new manufacturing requirements needed to meet the demands of this technology,” she said.
Ernzen is proud of how she facilitates collaboration among other Raytheon businesses, leveraging common test platforms and structures, driving commonalities for better efficiencies.
“Understanding our collective strengths allows us to improve our overall process capability – differentiating us from our competitors,” she said.
One example of Raytheon’s innovation is its facility in Huntsville, Alabama. The state-of-the-art factory features a fleet of laser-guided transport vehicles that silently move missiles around the property. The vehicles run on powerful lithium batteries and have their own internal positioning systems.
“The returns we have seen from our Huntsville facility are significant with regard to quality improvements and cost savings, which we pass on to the customer,” she said. “Moving a large missile around an entire facility without ever needing to be touched by human hands also protects our employees and the hardware we are building.”
Ernzen has come full circle to the challenges that face Raytheon today by breaking through obstacles and applying lessons learned early in her career.
“People may try to put you in a box and make you underestimate yourself. Ignore them,” she said. “If you continue to take calculated risks and define your own success, you will always achieve what you set out to.”