Radstone fights obsolescence through redesign on U.S. Army Firefinder

Engineers at Radstone Technology are taking aim at component obsolescence as they upgrade commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) circuit boards they supply for the U.S. Army's Firefinder counter-artillery radar system.

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By John McHale

TOWCESTER, England — Engineers at Radstone Technology are taking aim at component obsolescence as they upgrade commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) circuit boards they supply for the U.S. Army's Firefinder counter-artillery radar system.

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The U.S. Army Firefinder radar has been in the field for several years. Industry experts are confronting electronics obsolescence issues to keep the system operational for many more.
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Radstone's electronic modules are part of a recent order from the Northrop Grumman Corp. Electronic Systems division in Rolling Meadows, Ill., the Firefinder prime contractor.

Firefinder is a field-deployable radar system that detects enemy artillery shells virtually as they are fired from the big guns, and helps Army artillery personnel fire counter-battery rounds even before the enemy artillery shells hit their targets.

"This order highlights the benefits of selecting the right supplier from the outset," says Dr. Robert Weber, Northrop Grumman's program director for Firefinder. "The management of component obsolescence is a key area for any developer using COTS products and it is important, therefore, to choose suppliers who understand the issues involved and can work with us to maintain system integrity and longevity through technology refresh."

The main reason Northrop Grumman officials are going this route is to reduce software costs, says Peter Cavill, managing director for Radstone Technology in Towcester, England.

Instead of buying the latest-generation digital signal processor and PowerPC boards, Northrop Grumman designers are asking Radstone to upgrade existing boards to avoid rewriting and requalifying Firefinder software, he says.

"This order underlines our long-term commitment to what we call Whole Program Life COTS, an approach that aims to reduce overall cost of ownership and provide industry-leading safeguards against obsolescence," Cavill continues, The Whole Program Life COTS philosophy calls for Radstone engineers to work with their customers throughout the life of their programs, which may last 10 to 20 years, Cavill says.

Radstone's Product Lifecycle Management organization provides a quarterly audit on the availability of all parts in a particular product so designers can move quickly when the components go obsolete, Cavill explains.

Radstone engineers ensure that successive generations of products are backward compatible with the previous generation, he says. They also look for other ways to get around obsolescence, such as lifetime buys, Cavill explains.

Lifetime buys, however, were impossible on the Firefinder program. In some instances lifetime buys would cost 10 times that of the original product, Cavill says. This combined with the astronomical cost of rewriting software led Northrop Grumman and Radstone officials to their re-engineering plan, he adds.

Army officials also loosened the environmental temperature constraints slightly on Firefinder, enabling Radstone experts to take advantage of COTS technology that might not be as rugged as traditional MIL-STD equipment, Cavill says.

Products to be reengineered include versions of Radstone's VSP-1 (Vector Signal Processor) board, CPU-44 68040-based single-board computer, and PIO-2 parallel I/O board.

The solution will redesign some boards to accommodate today's components, and replace some application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICs, to today's technology, Radstone officials say.

The first group of the new orders for Firefinder, worth about $2 million, will be delivered this year, with further deliveries over the following four years.

The first generation of Firefinder was originally developed in the early 1970s. Radstone Technology joined the program in 1992 when its engineers were commissioned to upgrade the processing core of the computer system, with the first production orders placed in 1996.

For more information on Radstone's products contact David Ashton, by phone at 011-44-1327-359444, by fax at 011-44-1327-359662, or on the World Wide Web at http://www.radstone.com.

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