At Raytheon, where engineering rules

Road Trip 2010: The defense giant encourages openness among its 40,000-plus engineers as it tackles tech issues in areas from missiles to radar to semiconductors.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

Part of the semiconductor foundry at Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, this machine is used to grow gallium nitride. Raytheon

WALTHAM, Mass.--For Mark Russell, the vice president of engineering, technology, and mission assurance at defense giant Raytheon, engineering is not just his profession--it's also the lifeblood of the company.

It seems pretty obvious that engineering would be important at a company that makes just about every imaginable kind of defense system. But this important? At Raytheon, more than 40,000 of the total 75,000 employees are engineers, and the company is hiring thousands more each year.

To Russell, who grew up in the company (he's been there 27 years) it's a no-brainer that all six of Raytheon's major business units--integrated defense systems; missile systems; intelligence and information systems; network-centric systems; space and airborne systems; and Raytheon technical services--are driven by engineering and technology. And part of that is entirely practical: by having engineering driving the development side of the show, Russell can ensure that when the company builds new products, it builds in "hooks" ensuring both backward and forward compatibility.

And ultimately, he said, that is all about giving the company's customers--which range from the U.S. Navy and other elements of the U.S. Defense Department to an array of foreign governments--solutions to the problems they've presented.

I got a chance to talk to Russell, the top engineering and technology guy at Raytheon, during a stop at the company's corporate headquarters as part of Road Trip 2010. It was the beginning of what would end up being two days spent with various elements of the company--including BBN Technologies, the Cambridge, Mass., R&D shop that is sometimes credited with inventing the technology behind the Internet.

I met for a while with Russell--who called in by phone from Washington, D.C.--and Raytheon Chief Technology Officer Bill Kiczuk in the latter's office, and the two gave me a primer on the company's philosophy of building engineering into just about everything it does.

They talked a bit about the challenges of designing a missile system with the express goal of shooting down a failing satellite, and they set the table for one of my later meetings, during which I learned about Raytheon's groundbreaking work on a new semiconductor compound known as gallium nitride that it says is 10 times as powerful as current-generation materials and which will allow the military to build radars that are much more powerful than anything possible today.

Yet, despite the fact that Raytheon is known for its work on major projects like radar systems, missiles, naval destroyers, and the like, Russell pointed out that across the company, there are more than 8,000 programs and that none of them makes up more than a few percentage points of its overall revenue. Further, programs that are in the $10 million to $20 million range make up half of what Raytheon does.

How Raytheon innovates
To CTO Kiczuk, the answer to the question of how Raytheon innovates is simple: Across the board, everyone is free to pursue innovative ideas, and the company looks everywhere for new projects, both inside its own walls and outside at universities, start-ups, and other small companies. If Raytheon sees something it likes, it will try to license it, or buy its developer, and then it figures out how to mass produce the product.

Raytheon's killer laser 4, UAVs (photos)

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Inside the company, Raytheon has an annual innovation challenge in which it poses five hard problems that have come from customers and asks its employees to come up with possible solutions. Each year, it receives a few hundred white papers proposing answers, and selects five to fund for one year. If those projects bear fruit, then they are picked up by one of Raytheon's business units. "We keep it going long enough to see if it has life," Russell said.

Yet even though Raytheon is divided into the six units, there are no hard walls between them. Rather, the company encourages members of different businesses to weigh in on problems being addressed by others. That way, someone in one unit may discover that someone in another already has or is working on a solution to the same or a similar problem. If so, the two can collaborate going forward. In order to facilitate the discussions that would result in those kinds of discoveries, Raytheon holds regular internal symposiums, and hosts electronic idea sharing and discussion forums.

Similarly, it also has a program called Internal R&D, or IRAD, which searches for places where multiple business can collaborate on similar work to avoid redundancy, Kiczuk said.

And one of the key ideas at Raytheon is using existing technologies and applying them to non-traditional businesses. An example, said Kiczuk, is the question of whether radio frequency technology could be used to help with frost on citrus crops, much as microwaves were discovered to melt chocolate. The goal, ultimately, is to find the most and the best ways to apply technologies towards problem-solving technologies for the company's customers, he said.

Mission: Innovation
After my discussions with Russell and Kiczuk it was time to move on to Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems headquarters in nearby Tewksbury, Mass. There, I met with a phalanx of professionals from the IDS team, led by Lee Silvestre, the vice president of mission innovation.

Silvestre's mandate is to help shape the face of Raytheon--meaning that she is tasked with coming up with new ways to think about the company's identity and how it can make a difference to its customers. Her department explores and vets ideas from throughout the company in a search for solutions to problems that go beyond core defense industries. And that also means looking for new, nontraditional ways that the company can grow, lest it fall behind the curve.

For example, Silvestre said, in a bid to figure out new ways to track the avian flu, IDS recently began discussions with the Centers for Disease Control. "They said, 'Why should we talk to you? You're about killing people,'" Silvestre recalled, referring to the fact that to the CDC, one of the world's largest defense contractors wouldn't necessarily be the most obvious partner (See related clarification at the end of this post). But while Raytheon may well be best known as the maker of a wide range of weapons systems, it also has extensive expertise in technologies that can be used for things such as tracking the spread of disease, and so the discussions moved forward.

Gallium nitride
One place that IDS is innovating is in the base compound used in high-performance semiconductors.

For a long time, silicon has been used for that base, but Raytheon wanted to find a better solution for phased-array radars, since it's the job of the semiconductor to boost the signal from a military-strength radar system from hundreds of megahertz to tens or hundreds of gigahertz, a frequency multiplication process.

At IDS, Raytheon already has a long history of producing semiconductors and even has its own foundry. And not long ago, the company began investigating whether a new compound, gallium nitride, might offer an order-of-magnitude improvement over silicon. Underlying that decision were some of the properties of gallium nitride: it has a high bind gap, meaning it is good at withstanding electricity; it pulls a lot of heat out; and it is as sensitive as possible on the receiving side, while being as powerful as possible on the transmitting side.

According to IDS' Joe Smolko, Raytheon sees gallium nitride offering five to 10 times the power density advantages--in size and cost--over what is available today. That means it could produce higher power and smaller chips with a smaller dollar per watt of power cost.

Smolko said that gallium nitride's sweet spot is that it is far more efficient than current phased-array semiconductor compounds like gallium arsenide, particularly when it comes to heat generation.

And that means that Raytheon sees a huge opportunity to migrate the Navy and other users of phased-array radars away from legacy technology like gallium arsenide to gallium nitride.

Going back to Raytheon's companywide mandate to make its equipment forward- and backward-compatible, Smolko argued that new gallium nitride-based semiconductors will be able to be integrated into legacy radar systems, like those on the F-18 fighter jet. And Raytheon sees that the new compound's time has come--Smolko said gallium nitride is ready now for system insertion. And as such, it is now producing large amounts of the material in its semiconductor foundry in Tewskbury.

The underlying goal is simple: find the latest technologies that can help improve the systems Raytheon makes. And if there's a way to make generational leaps, improvements that are of an order of magnitude or better, then push toward that.

"Our end customer is that kid in Iraq," one of my hosts said, "whose life may depend on what we build, so we want it to be 100 percent."

Update at 3:38 p.m. PDT: This story has been modified to clarify a comment by Lee Silvestre about Raytheon's discussions with the Center for Disease Control. The statement was an aside, and as originally written, didn't accurately represent the sentiment she was trying to convey.

For the next week, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.