They were computer chips for the Patriotís radar system ñ parts that since 2006 have shrunk to one-eighth their previous size.
ìNow theyíre as small as a speck of pepper,î said Arruda, operations director for Raytheonís air defense programs. ìThatís how far Patriot has come in the last few years.
And tiny chips are just the start. From the tip of its nose cone to the base of its radar, designers have invested more than $400 million into Patriot in the last four years as part of a massive program aimed at making the legendary air and missile defense system faster, smarter and tougher.
Miniature components have replaced racks of equipment. Touchscreens have replaced control panels. New machines in Raytheonís Andover, Mass. factory are making parts lighter, stronger and longer-lasting.
The U.S. government and other partners in the program have helped fund the modernization, but it was an order for new Patriot systems for the United Arab Emirates that gave designers the chance to reengineer Patriot from the ground up in late 2008.
The system had already gone through several upgrades since its debut in the first Gulf War. But designers now gave the Patriot missile a faster, more accurate guidance system known as Guidance-Enhanced Missile ñ Tactical, or GEM-T. They rewired circuits in the radar and command stations, shrinking and speeding up components.
The missileís mobile control room got a major makeover, with huge touch screens, faster computers and sleek black keyboards replacing banks of controls.
New way of building
Work crews ripped out whole sections of the factory and installed brand-new machinery to build the redesigned system.
In the brightly lit circuit card department, sleek ìchip shooterî machines, each capable of installing 30,000 components an hour, now hum away beneath a white banner emblazoned with a Patriot missile.
The machines make cleaner, more consistent connections, said Tom Thrower, the operations manager for the department. That results in faster and more reliable electronics for the Patriot.
In the radar, one assembly that took 435 circuit cards is now down to five, Thrower said. Sixteen power supplies were combined into one. Wiring that used to require 31 cables now takes 10.
In the factoryís cavernous assembly bay, manager Maria Bonnin opened the side doors of an olive-green Patriot radar to show a refrigerator-sized void where circuit cards used to go.
ìIt created all this added space, these slots, for added future capability,î Arruda said.
In a nearby corridor, white radomes made of a new ceramic material waited to be fitted over the sensors of new GEM-T missiles.
Elsewhere in the plant, new computer-controlled tools have taken over the high-volume, high-precision work of cutting beams to support the radarís antenna. The machines can make microscopic adjustments, even compensating for tiny variations in room temperature that could cause miniscule differences in each part.
ìIn the end it all improves the reliability of what weíre making,î said Steven Warshafsky, a manager in the metal fabrication department.
New advances have also made the Patriot easier to maintain, Warshafsky said. Antenna elements no longer have to be sent back to the factory for repair. They can be replaced right in the field.
The first new GEM-T missile streaked into the sky at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in August 2011, followed by a test firing of the first complete, new-production Patriot system in March 2012.
Engineers are now giving Patriot the ability to see further by connecting it to Raytheonís system of radar-carrying airships, the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS. In April, a Patriot missile used information from a JLENS to smash a target out of the sky at a test range in Utah.
With so much new technology under the hood, designers are confident the new Patriot can take on any threat in the world, said Glenn Walker, a business development manager for Raytheonís Integrated Air and Missile Defense.
ìPatriot was state-of-the-art in 1982 when it was delivered into the U.S. Army inventory, and Patriot is state-of-the-art in 2012 when it was delivered to the UAE inventory,î Walker said. ìHow we have prepared it for success in the future is really remarkable.î