ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (July 12, 2016) - A model called ‘horizontal integration using trusted entities’ is helping the VISTA program develop and mature new component technologies, establish a completely new industrial base and have the technology ready for transition in just five years.
Years ago, if the Army wanted to develop complex, ambitious capabilities with industry, it relied on a strategy of vertical integration, in which a single defense contractor controlled the various stages of production, such as research and development, supply and distribution. Vertical integration occurred on a large scale over the last two decades as consolidation and mergers of major defense contractors created almost monopolistic industry entities.
As time has passed, DOD has been forced to re-examine this dependence on vertical integration. Such strategies often resulted in systems that depended on government funding to remain viable and ended when the funding dried up. Additionally, according to the Defense Business Board and DOD leaders, such strategies are a barrier to new entrants to an industrial base, and the lack of independent systems integrators creates barriers to innovation. How does the Army develop an integration strategy that not only fosters collaboration, competition, communication and innovation but also results in capabilities that can sustain themselves through nongovernmental means?
Answers to these questions can be found in the pioneering work of a tri-service program called Vital Infrared Sensor Technology Acceleration, or VISTA, led by the U.S. Army Materiel Command’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center’s (CERDEC) Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD).
VISTA set out to do what many thought was impossible: challenge industry and DOD to develop and mature new sensor component technologies, establish a completely new industrial base and have the technology ready for transition in just five years. All a considerable challenge, given that precursor sensor development efforts took more than 50 years to reach their current capability.
To overcome these obstacles and embrace the challenge, DOD engineers and scientists had to develop an entirely new model for engaging with industry that used horizontal integration rather than vertical stovepipes and leveraged trusted entities to share intellectual capital, while preserving the integrity of a competitive environment.
It’s a model that could bring participants together cooperatively to work on a challenge of national importance. Dr. Meimei Tidrow, VISTA program manager and chief scientist for focal plane arrays at NVESD, explained, “We needed an innovative model. We needed stakeholders with buy-in power and scientists with world-class talent. And even more difficult, we needed industry players that were willing to work together, even if they were competitors.”
Thus, VISTA pioneered a new strategy model—horizontal integration using trusted entities (HIUTE)—with the following key components:
The warfighter is an invaluable component in the horizontal integration mode, providing feedback while understanding and accepting that it may take several attempts to overcome hard technical challenges.
“We knew the first order of business for VISTA was to get buy-in and direction from the broadest user community in DOD,” said Dr. Donald Reago, current NVESD director. “So we established a stakeholders’ review board that set goals at the onset of the program and then re-evaluated progress and goals on an annual basis. By doing so, we knew we had the user community’s interest at the forefront and stayed on top of changes as VISTA progressed.”
VISTA’s stakeholders review board included senior members of the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Missile Defense Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Reconnaissance Organization.
The trusted entities in the horizontal integration model are leading researchers in DOD—the scientists who perform important research and development that leads to breakthroughs. For VISTA, the scientists came from NVESD, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory.
In the VISTA program, which ran from FY11 to FY15, these trusted entities developed a new class of materials for infrared focal plane arrays and digital readout integrated circuits, then transferred their designs and findings to industry. (See “The VISTA Advantage” for more information on focal plane arrays.) Commercial foundries, such as IQE PLC and Intelligent Epitaxy Technology Inc., used these VISTA inspired recipes to grow wafers, a thin slice of semiconductor material, which are then sent to fabrication houses. The fabrication houses finalize the process by converting the wafers into functional focal plane arrays, which are then tested and demonstrated. Fabrication houses participating in VISTA included HRL Laboratories LLC, L-3 Cincinnati Electronics, Lockheed Martin Santa Barbara Focalplane, Raytheon Vision Systems and Teledyne Scientific & Imaging.
The use of commercial foundries is significant in that it engaged manufacturers who sell cellphone chips and other electronic components as primary revenue streams for their businesses and are not reliant on DOD for their survival. “The integration of commercial foundries through the HIUTE model was incredibly important to our long-term success,” said Andy Davis of the U.S. Army Manufacturing Technology program, better known as ManTech. “The use of trusted entities enabled us to provide critical designs and know-how necessary to establish the production capabilities within the manufacturing community.”
A key feature in how the VISTA program executed horizontal sharing among competitors was the quarterly program review, where all participants and stakeholders reviewed progress and discussed possible solutions to technical issues. Seventeen quarterly program reviews have been conducted over the past five years, with government stakeholders, trusted entities and industry partners sharing key findings in two-day meetings.
“This sharing was unprecedented,” said Dr. A. Fenner Milton, former NVESD director. “It’s very unusual to see competitors sit side by side in a room and share results with each other. Without these discussions, it would be difficult to have this much progress over such short a time.”
To further facilitate industrial buy-in, VISTA established an industry consortium to identify and address common problems. Led by NVESD and the JPL, a VISTA-participating federally funded research and development center, the consortium is completely funded by eight industry members through a five-year agreement. Industry participants combine resources, pay JPL to do work, and receive and share rights to use the intellectual property for government purposes up to production and for proposals. “We [the government] recognized the challenges industrial competitors would face in having cooperative discussions,” said Reago. “In the case of VISTA, NVESD served in a pivotal role as the consortium committee chairperson in facilitating constructive dialogue and providing oversight and guidance to this process.”
Over the course of the five-year program, the VISTA consortium’s eight industry members included BAE Systems, DRS Technologies, HRL Laboratories, FLIR Systems, L-3 Cincinnati Electronics, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Vision Systems and Teledyne Scientific & Imaging.
VISTA has provided tremendous results over a short period of time, with unparalleled sensor technology that exceeds most adversaries. “We’ve done a lot, but there is more work to do,” said Dr. Tidrow. “And if we continue, we will definitely be using the HIUTE model. HIUTE clearly reduced the time for development and industry establishment, while also allowing the entire national team of participants to learn about breakthroughs and approaches that didn’t pan out, saving us a lot of time and effort. We would never have been where we are today using historical vertical solutions with only one commercial provider.”
The horizontal integration model was successful in addressing many of the challenges that the science and technology community faces when tackling hard problems with high risks. The model illustrates how industry can connect with the brightest minds in a collaborative manner that shares lessons learned while preserving the competitive spirit that motivates organizations and individuals to innovate.
This model provides the government with opportunities to leverage investments from other sources and reduce costs while increasing the self-sufficiency of the industrial base. It also redefines how industry can work not only with the government, but also more collaboratively with all of its members. It’s enabling DOD to push the boundaries of conventional thinking regarding limitations of science.
It is through the HIUTE that VISTA has become a success for DOD and industry. The technology developed in this program will be transitioned to multiple programs of record including third-generation forward-looking infrared capabilities, the Apache Project Management Office, Javelin Upgrade, and Joint Strike Fighter, and ultimately facilitate warfighter overmatch in any environment. Additionally, the successful implementation of the model has significantly reduced critical dependencies on foreign technologies, encouraged U.S. industrial competition and allowed industry to focus on its strengths.
Using the model, DOD boosted the number and capabilities of infrared sensor-related domestic suppliers, making the United States more competitive in this critical technology area. Products delivered from this effort will enable the next generation of sensors to perform at the levels necessary for our Soldiers to maintain overmatch in the years to come.
In the VISTA program, scientists developed a new class of materials for a critical component of an infrared camera sensor: infrared focal plane arrays. Analogous to your eye’s retina, the infrared focal plane array detects and absorbs the infrared signature. Historically, infrared focal plane arrays for advanced systems have been costly, hard to produce and have relied on components from other countries. Additionally, advanced infrared focal plane arrays require cooling at low temperatures, which can lead to higher size, weight and power (SWAP) demands and shorter life spans.
III-V antimony-based infrared focal plane arrays address these issues. When we say “III-V,” we are referring to the material elements, which are in the III and V columns of the periodic table. Improvements in molecular beam epitaxy technology in the 1990s have enabled band-gap engineering. This allows engineers to grow layers of these elements or epitaxial materials on gallium antimonide substrates. Fabricators can then etch, dice and hybridize multiple detectors from each substrate to make focal plane arrays.
III-V Strained Layer Superlattice infrared focal plane arrays can theoretically provide better performance than traditional II-VI technology at a much lower cost. Additionally, III-V SLS offers many of the benefits that DOD is seeking, such as SWAP and yield, because it can operate at higher temperatures for some applications. It can also be made repeatedly with extremely high operability and uniformity, and all of its components are made in the United States.
This article originally appeared in the July-September 2016 issue of U.S. Army AL&T Magazine.
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