OIS turns corner: wins Apache Longbow contract

July 1, 1998
NORTHVILLE, Mich. - Leaders of Optical Imaging Systems (OIS) of Northville, Mich., appear to have overcome adversity and are re-establishing themselves a viable producers of active-matrix liquid crystal displays (AMLCDs).

By Chris Chinnock

NORTHVILLE, Mich. - Leaders of Optical Imaging Systems (OIS) of Northville, Mich., appear to have overcome adversity and are re-establishing themselves a viable producers of active-matrix liquid crystal displays (AMLCDs).

Last February they won ISO 9001 certification, and in April they announced a new $15 million contract from the AlliedSignal Defense & Space Systems Division in Teterboro, N.J., to produce displays for the AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter. OIS seems to have righted a shaky ship and is finally charting a steady course.

The AlliedSignal contract as the largest single production order that OIS has received to date, says Chuck Wilson, the company`s executive vice president. "This is validation of our ability to produce a quality product," Wilson says.

The contract runs from October 1998 through September 2000 and calls for the delivery of 1,400 high-reliability display head assemblies. The display head consists of a 6.25-by-6.25-inch AMLCD in a RGGB quad pixel arrangement, along with interface electronics packaged into a frame for further integration at AlliedSignal.

Engineers at AlliedSignal add a backlight plus microprocessors to complete the Multi Purpose Display (MPD). The MPD then goes into the U.S. Army`s Apache Longbow helicopter at a Boeing integration facility in Mesa, Ariz.

When the latest -D model Apache receives the Northrop Grumman Longbow AN/PRC 76 millimeter-wave-radar-based fire control system, it is called the Longbow. The MPD units are a color AMLCD replacement for a monochrome CRT-based display that is usually called the Multi Function Display. The pilot and co-pilot have two MPDs as their primary displays in the cockpit.

"These MPDs are used by the pilots to display everything," says Walt Manuel, AlliedSignal`s Longbow program manger. "There must be around 125 different formats for navigation, flight, targeting, communications, fuel, etc."

AlliedSignal and OIS officials are also hopeful that older -A model Apaches will be retrofitted with the new MPDs. Manuel notes there are at least 750 -A versions. "It is just a matter of time and allocating the money," Manuel says. In fact, Boeing officials reportedly have a significant backlog of Longbow upgrade orders and are ramping up production on AH-64D models.

Things have not always been so rosy for OIS leaders. In March 1995, they suffered a fire inside their facility and the cleanup took nine months, which significantly delayed deliveries. With Litton Systems Canada in Etobicoke, Ontario, and Image Quest Technologies in Fremont, Calif., also having trouble with delivering military-grade FPDs, the door was open to competitors.

Espousing a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) approach, third-party integrators proposed using foreign-made AMLCDs with additional performance enhancement and ruggedization provided in U.S. firms. For the most part, these vendors were able to deliver products that were acceptable to program mangers, sparking a huge debate on COTS versus custom-made AMLCDs. Many military programs are now buying flat-panel displays made with offshore glass.

OIS officials have recovered, but not without heartache. "A year ago our customers probably would have said we had quality and reliability problems," Wilson admits. "One of our problems has been with the drivers for the display, which we purchase from outside vendors. We are now working to resolve that problem."

It seems to be working. AlliedSignal`s Manuel notes he has been receiving production-grade displays form OIS since last February. "There has not been a single waiver issued on them," he says. "They are also currently ahead of their delivery schedule."

The recent certification of the manufacturing facility to demanding ISO 9001 specifications is also a sign that quality is improving. "Our material return rate is now 5 percent, but once we clean up some of our supplier problems, we should be able to reach our goal of 2 percent," Wilson says.

OIS officials also offer the same display glass as part of a family of products they are targeting toward commercial aviation applications. The same display, but with less-rigorously screened electronics, is supposedly suitable for the European-made Airbus jetliner, Wilson explains.

But it is here that the argument over COTS versus custom gets a little sticky. The display glass itself may remain unaltered, but almost every other specification is up for review and change. This can include mechanical packaging, viewing angles, temperature range, shock and vibration, and interface electronics.

Click here to enlarge image

Flat-panel display glass from OIS is going into new military helicopter cockpits.

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