Randy Stevenson has built a lot of missiles. Over the last 40 years or so, he’s worked for Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. He climbed the ranks from missile technician to overseeing the construction of five missile factories scattered through the southern United States. These days, Stevenson finds himself back at Raytheon, where he’s the director of weapons of integration, having just constructed what may be the most advanced weapons plant of its kind in the world.
The 55,000-square-foot Raytheon facility opened its doors last month in Huntsville, Ala., to produce the Standard Missile-3 and SM-6, interceptors used by the U.S. Navy to shoot down ballistic missiles. The factory stands as unique because of its heavy use of autonomous transport vehicles that carry missile components throughout the factory, removing the need for humans to pick up and move the explosives. “There’s a saying that an older gentleman told me at the beginning of my career,” says Stevenson. “If you don’t want to have problems with explosives, don’t handle them.”
For decades, the production of missiles has been an arduous, manual process. Some of the most dangerous moments surrounding such work take place during what are called “critical lifts” in which part of a missile or the entire missile gets moved from one workplace to another. Until recently, for example, it would require six people to place an assembled SM3 onto a stand and roll it into a test area. “In our new factory, all six of those spots are eliminated,” Stevenson says. “It’s all automated.”
Raytheon has purchased automated transport vehicles that come in 10-foot and 24-foot flavors. They’re guided by lasers that move the missile parts from point to point and then put them down at workstations in a slow, smooth fashion. If a human gets too close to a transport while it’s moving, the vehicle stops on its own. The same thing happens if someone’s hand breaks an invisible plane surrounding the parts. Such technology would not be that radical in other factories, but to get things like low-output lasers and certain types of wireless communications into a missile plant required Raytheon to work with regulators in setting new production standards.
At the workstations, technicians assemble the internal components of the missiles and are again guided by a host of automated systems. There’s one that checks to make sure a particular technician has the right kind of training to work on a specific job, another that checks the part numbers as they go in, and a further one that makes sure screws are turned exactly the right number of times. “If you put a screw that is one part number wrong into many applications on an automobile, the user will never know,” Stevenson says. “In our case, it could be catastrophic. We have to know that we have the right screw in the right location and that the torque is applied correctly.”
The missiles weigh 8,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds, and can stretch to 20 feet long. Raytheon expects to produce about 30 of them a month.
That the company is quite proud of its new factory was evidenced by the four—four!—public relations people that monitored my conversation with Stevenson. These folks were, of course, also around to clarify exactly what these robotic systems mean to the number of jobs available to humans at the Raytheon facility. At the moment, there are 35 people working at the new factory. “There are fewer people needed,” Stevenson says. “But the ones that are needed are of a higher classification of worker than we used in the past.”
An Alabama native, Stevenson has a smooth, Southern drawl and it oozed with pride as he talked about this factory—basically the culmination of his life’s work. Raytheon has, in effect, finally brought modern manufacturing techniques to the missile production game, which should result in weapons that are safer to produce and more reliable when they’re asked to blow things up. “This will be our model for all of our missile factories,” Stevenson says.