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HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (Reuters) - Building missiles used to be back-breaking, strenuous work, and dangerous too, given the high level of explosives involved.
But U.S. weapons maker Raytheon Co has revolutionized that process at a sprawling, classified facility in Huntsville, Alabama, where automated transporters ferry missile parts to gleaming assembly stations, and even tuck themselves away for charging when their batteries run low.
The $75 million facility at the U.S. military's Redstone Arsenal reflects a new spirit of innovation pulsing through the U.S. defense industry, which is scrambling to maintain revenues despite declining military budgets after the end of the war in Iraq and the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan.
"This is what we call the 'factory of the future'," said Randy Stevenson, director of Raytheon's Weapon Integration Center. "We're using a lot of automation and intelligence and other innovative aspects of doing business that we gathered from other industries," including the automotive business.
Stevenson said the factory is already delivering better production time, quality and safety, but those metrics will improve as the factory matures. "This horse is at a trot, but we're going to come to a gallop in another year or so," he told Reuters during a rare media tour of the plant.
Leanne Caret, who heads Boeing Co's vertical lift programs, said changing times called for different approaches.
"We're really taking a step back and thinking about how do we make innovation part of every employee's day-to-day decision-making," Caret told Reuters during a conference hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army conference. She said Boeing was setting up innovation centers across the country to encourage greater collaboration and "out-of-the-box" thinking.
Caret said she was confident that a teaming agreement between Boeing and United Technologies Corp's Sikorsky Aircraft for early work on a next-generation helicopter would help the companies disprove the conventional wisdom that the cost of military aircraft will continue to grow exponentially.
"We are going to be able to break the price curve," she said. "We're very conscious of the realities. It's more than acquisition costs. It's as much about developing a weapons system that you build, deploy and sustain for the long term."
Thinking differently, for instance, has allowed Boeing to leverage the expertise of its commercial airplane testers to keep testing of its military aircraft on schedule and cost.
Top U.S. Army officials this week underscored the need for continued spending by industry and government on science and technology, highlighting work on new materials, alternative energy sources, robotics and even better meals for soldiers.
"We're still investing in new capabilities," top Army arms buyer Heidi Shyu told executives, reminding them that many of today's weapons systems got their start during a downturn in defense spending after the Vietnam War.
Dan Bailey, who heads the Pentagon's effort to develop a new rotary aircraft, said top U.S. defense officials continued to support the program despite declining budgets, mindful of the need to maintain or rebuild the defense industry's base of engineering and design talent.
He said one critical element was ensuring that the aircraft had computer systems that were able to integrate new technology developments as they emerged, much like a smart phone can accommodate a continuous stream of new applications or "apps."
"These trucks will be out there for another century. We need to put in place an architecture that's robust, that's enduring and flexible," Bailey said.
Unmanned ground, sea and air systems also provide fertile ground for innovation.
Lockheed Martin Corp this week said it had been selected by the U.S. Army Robotics Technology Consortium to use one of its unmanned K-MAX cargo helicopters to transport an unmanned ground vehicle into an "area of interest" deemed too risky for humans and then use on-board sensors to stream data and carry out operations.
Joe Zinecker, head of combat maneuver systems at Lockheed's missile division, said the deal was an industry first.
"We believe this demonstration could lead to expanded missions such as remote sensing and monitoring of suspected chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats or events," he said.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by James Dalgleish