Electronics & Computers

From VME to VPX

The New Electronic Packaging Challenge

Sequestration, defense reform and cost constraints are driving a new paradigm in the defense industry, where leveraging existing technologies is no longer optional, but required. This is especially true as we migrate from VME to VPX-based embedded computing.

 

The United States government, defense prime contractors, second-tier primes and integrators can no longer afford a “whatever it costs” approach to satisfying technology requirements for deployment. This severely limits the opportunities for developing major new defense electronics platforms. The traditional approach to moving from a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 1 to 9 (Figure 1) is too complex and costly in terms of affordability development cycle time, and qualification implications, and is simply no longer acceptable. As such, the defense mission is changing as we approach 2014 and beyond.

 

Past Practice

Over the past 30 years or more, it has been common for technology migration from TRL level 1 to TRL level 9 to take 20 years or longer. The F-22 project exemplifies this. The initial need for a new fighter to replace the F-16 was outlined in 1981, but the first deployment of the F-22 didn’t occur until 2005. This lengthy transition and development time was due in part to a lack of clear definition of what needed to change. In fact, it wasn’t until 1986 that the initial request for bids went out to prime contractors. In addition, there was no clear definition of how to provide the required capabilities on the platform. This led to the creation of numerous new, interrelated, “custom” technologies. As these new technologies went through the design phase, the impact on other subsystems was in a constant state of flux, leading to changes in the scope of work, which resulted in project delays. These types of changes in leadtime, capabilities, and cost are not acceptable in today’s fast-paced defense industry. Today, these factors are treated as firm fixed targets determined at the beginning of a project.

The focus on affordability, open architecture and rapid deployment of platform upgrades applies pressure to the defense prime contractors to utilize commercially-developed technologies to bring essential upgrades to the theater quickly, and at a reduced cost. This Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) stems from a critical need to apply new technologies in theater as exposures and gaps in systems are identified based on two decades of wartime experience. QRC projects are the baseline of several current product development directions for the military and have significantly shorter cycle time requirements.

Mercury Systems has worked on several mission-critical technology projects designed to affordably move a defense electronics platform from a TRL level 3 to a TRL level 9, in less than 15 months. This rapid development was achieved by utilizing a model that leveraged open standards and proven technology to reduce risk. In this approach, much of the design, development and qualification work is completed in advance and then tailored to each individual project’s needs. By defining the system and subsystem interfaces, commercially- developed products are integrated more easily into subsystems as upgrades at strategic points in the platform’s life cycle. The use of commercially-developed modules that can be used in either lab-based or deployed scenarios, along with commercial subsystems, allows for quick-turn development systems. These lab-based units enable system integrators and primes to begin hardware analysis, as well as software, middleware and firmware development while the final system hardware is still being developed and tested. This “parallel path” concurrent engineering approach drastically reduces development cycle time and the likelihood of design issues cropping up late in the development cycle. The “pinch point” in the system design generally is ad dressed earlier, which significantly reduces costs as well as system development and deployment delays.