Futuristic Raytheon Alabama factory makes missiles with robots

Raytheon invested $75 million in its high-tech missile factory in Huntsville, AL.
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Courtesy of Raytheon

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HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – In the futuristic Raytheon Alabama factory, robotic vehicles glide silently across gleaming plant floors, transporting nose cones and other missile parts to the precise spots where they are needed for assembly.

The $75 million Raytheon Redstone Missile Integration Facility in Huntsville, however, is not simply a marvel of technological design. The 70,000-square-foot facility — one of the newest stars in Alabama’s aerospace constellation — produces weapons that are considered key components of the U.S. missile defense plan.

Governor Robert Bentley met with top Raytheon executives at the Paris Air Show this morning to discuss potential opportunities to expand the global company’s Alabama presence and to highlight the state’s top-rated worker training programs through AIDT and the Alabama Community College System.

In late May, the Hunstville factory delivered its first Standard Missile-3, a defensive weapon used to destroy short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles, according to Raytheon. It also produces the larger Standard Missile-6, a ship-defense interceptor used by the U.S. and Japanese Navies to defend against aircraft, drones and cruise missiles.

The Alabama plant’s design sets it apart. Raytheon said it started the facility from scratch, using the most advanced robotics and computer-controlled tools. Designers utilized a virtually reality chamber, called the Cave Automatic Environment, at Raytheon’s Missile Systems business in Arizona to test all aspects of the plant before construction began. It opened in November 2012.

“It’s not exactly ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ but it’s mighty, mighty high tech throughout,” says Mike Ward, the vice president of governmental affairs for the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County who has toured the plant.

A key feature of the plant’s operation is the fleet of laser-guided transport vehicles that move the missiles around the factory, removing the need for workers to lift and move the weapons around the factory. The trollies run on powerful lithium ion batteries and have their own internal positioning systems, as well as a built-in safety system that halts the vehicle if a person approaches.

The transporters can carry missile components weighing up to five tons and position the missiles within 1/10,000th of an inch. Significantly, the vehicles have eliminated all 16 of the so-called “critical lifts” involved in missile assembly, reducing the chances for an accident. The factory’s machinery also has the flexibility to handle future missile designs, Raytheon says.

“This will be our model for all of our missile factories,” Randy Stevenson, an Alabama native who heads the Raytheon Weapon Integration Center in Huntsville, told Bloomberg Businessweek for a profile on the plant.

Raytheon’s factory of the future stands on a base with a rich history. The U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal is where the first U.S. ballistic missiles were built in the 1950s and where NASA produced the Saturn V rocket that launched astronauts to the moon in the 1960s.

Raytheon opened the Redstone Arsenal factory with 35 workers but expects to have 300 employees on site in about two years.

“Raytheon is proud to be part of Alabama’s aviation and aerospace corridor,” Dr. Taylor W. Lawrence, president of Raytheon Missile Systems, said in a statement.

The Standard Missile franchise has its own storied history, with the program last month marking its 60th anniversary. It got its start with the SM-1, which protected U.S. Navy vessels against low-flying, anti-ship missiles.

Raytheon says the SM-3 is the only missile that can be launched from a ship, blast into space, and destroy short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. It relies on a non-explosive warhead to do its work, a concept that often is called as “hitting a bullet with a bullet.” The SM-3 is an important piece of the U.S. government’s Phased Adaptive Approach for defending Europe against ballistic missile threats.

The SM-6 is an over-the-horizon weapon that protects naval vessels. By 2015, Raytheon plans to upgrade the SM-6 to provide protection against ballistic missiles in their final phase of flight, making it a game-changer for fleet defense efforts.

“This integration center, its employees and the innovative products we build here will indeed be national assets,” Dr. Lawrence added. “We recognize that countless lives may one day depend on these technologies.”

Ward of the Huntsville chamber says Raytheon’s decision to build its factory of the future in Alabama says a lot about the capabilities of the state’s aerospace/aviation sector and its investment environment.

“First and foremost, what it speaks to is the business friendly environment that we have here in Alabama and, of course, in Huntsville,” he said. “Raytheon has production facilities in quite a few states. Frankly, it would have been easier for them to expand those existing operations. It’s always easier to expand than to locate an entirely new operation in an entirely new area.

“So to overcome those hurdles, you have to be able to demonstrate you are a partner that can help the company earn better return on their investment.”