Aftermarket parts a promising business for rad-hard suppliers

Sept. 1, 2006
Prospects for a softening market for large military and aerospace programs such as the Army Future Combat System and Joint Strike Fighter are on a lot of minds these days.
John Keller
Editor in Chief
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Prospects for a softening market for large military and aerospace programs such as the Army Future Combat System and Joint Strike Fighter are on a lot of minds these days.

Although some worry about how a potential slowdown in big-program spending might influence electronics and electro-optics suppliers, the emerging delays and budget cutbacks in civil and defense space programs are enhancing the market for obsolescent electronic components that are radiation hardened to withstand naturally occurring radiation in orbits around the Earth.

Companies such as Aeroflex Colorado Springs in Colorado Springs, Colo., Intersil in Palm Bay, Fla., and BAE Systems in Manassas, Va., are making a good living from supplying radiation-hardened parts not only for future satellite and manned space programs, but also and especially for upgrades to existing systems that are launch time or may see program stretchouts because of cutbacks in future systems.

“We are seeing obsolescence issues in rad-hard discrete logic in the space industry,” explains Anthony Jordan, director of standard products at Aeroflex. “Designers are asking for redesigned old parts and meeting documentation, whether it is an SMD or data sheet. There is an opportunity for us because we are not exiting these markets.”

SMD stands for standard microcircuit drawing, and is a standard administered by the U.S. Defense Supply Center Columbus in Columbus, Ohio.

Other companies also are seeing opportunities by continuing or restarting production of obsolescent electronic devices that are radiation hardened for space.

The BAE Systems Space Systems and Electronics segment in Manassas, Va., has restarted production of a 256K programmable read-only memory (PROM) device that is pin-for-pin form, fit, and function compatible with the original device, says Tim Scott, national sales manager for space components at BAE Systems.

BAE experts are using the device’s original oxide-nitride-oxide antifuse technology, yet are fabricating the latest PROMs on the company’s new 150- nanometer rad-hard bulk CMOS line. The company is delivering flight-qualified devices, Scott says.

Likewise, Intersil engineers have redesigned an existing rad-hard analog switch, to be followed sometime next year by a rad-hard fast comparator for satellite-based data acquisition, says Thomas Marshall, Intersil’s product marketing managers for space products.

Aeroflex’s Jordan points to delays in new space programs such as the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) as primary reasons that aftermarket electronics parts for space are providing such lucrative opportunities.

The FIA is a U.S. National Reconnaissance Office project to build the next-generation imagery satellite system with more capable imagery satellites than are currently on orbit. The program is to use available small satellite technology, and give intelligence analysts a capability for which they have long been clamoring.

“The mission is way behind, and the assets we have on orbit today are getting a little long in the tooth,” Jordan explains. “The intelligence community is scrambling to get those assets updated; they want to rebuild and replace these assets.”

Some crucial intelligence satellites, he says, are near the end of their lifecycles and in danger of running out of fuel. When that happens, satellites simply die, fall out of orbit, and burn up on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Other planned satellite-related programs also are in jeopardy or are facing close scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate, for example, reportedly are asking for justification for the transition from the Joint Network Node (JNN) to the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) to before it can proceed, and are questioning its immediate necessity.

“The legacy and obsolescence market has blossomed over the past year, and our legacy market has been strong for the past three years,” Jordan says. “I’m cautiously optimistic that this market will remain strong.”

It isn’t just the space market, however, that is fueling aftermarket component sales, he points out. This could broaden opportunities for legacy parts beyond the rad-hard supplier base.

“We thought the migration from 5-volt to 3-volt technology would take place faster than it has, but 5-volt is still around,” Jordan says.

Everyone knows that military systems specifiers will always have a burning desire for more capability. The problem these days, increasingly, is finding the money to pay for ever-increasing capability.

The high costs, long development cycles, and potential political ramifications of bringing new systems online will continue to make upgrading existing systems attractive-and fuel demand for aftermarket components.

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