Manufacturing for Tomorrow: Next Generation Electronics

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Additive Manufacturing and a New Revolution in Design Engineering

Over the last 60 years, the development and growth of the U.S. electronics industry has been impressive – gaining momentum with the invention of the silicon chip and leading to tremendous gains in high-performance computing and telecommunications.

This exponential growth in performance, coupled with dramatic cost and size reductions, has enabled everything from manned space flight to enhanced national security to the proliferation of consumer electronics. 

However, today’s rapid technological advancements and the globalization of research, development and manufacturing have led to one constant across this ever-changing industry: the need to accelerate the development and adoption of smaller, faster and more efficient electronics.

Speaking of the Future: Advanced Manufacturing

“Lockheed Martin is committed to significantly reducing the size, weight power and cost (SWAP-C) of our systems by applying next-generation technology in areas that include microelectronics, photonics and system-in-package technologies,” said Steve Betza, Lockheed Martin director of Advanced Manufacturing. “In addition, we are partnering with government, industry and academia to accelerate the development of faster, smaller and more efficient power electronic devices.”

Power electronics are the hidden components that convert and control electrical power across the power grid and are embedded in a wide array of industrial and consumer products – from radar systems to smartphones. The Department of Energy predicts that by 2030, power electronic devices will be utilized for 80 percent of all electrical energy consumed.

Currently, silicon chips are the basis of most power electronics. However, with an increasing focus on renewable energies and intense competition from the global marketplace, Lockheed Martin and other manufacturers are looking at what comes next. 

“The future is power electronics that use wide bandgap semiconductors,” said Lockheed Martin Fellow Tom Byrd. “This technology allows power to transfer much more efficiently – meaning you can provide more power out to the equipment with less heat buildup. If you are wasting less energy, then your power source can also be smaller.”

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Thanks to advancements in manufacturing, ramping up production of wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors will allow for power electronic components to be smaller, faster and more efficient than their current silicon-based counterparts.

This has huge potential for major manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, especially in high-frequency and high-power radar, satellite communications, and high-density power applications. For example, wide bandgap technology could potentially halve the size of an aircraft’s cooling system.

Just as significant, this technology will reduce costs in large data centers and decrease energy use across the power grid, according to the Department of Energy.

Lockheed Martin has committed to becoming a Tier 1 member of PowerAmerica, the Next Generation Power Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute. Led by NC State University, PowerAmerica is one of the four existing institutes established thus far under the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), a nationwide network aimed at revolutionizing American manufacturing.  

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“The institute is committed to reducing cost and dramatically accelerating the commercialization of wide bandgap power electronics to power America,” said Dennis Kekas, interim executive director of PowerAmerica. “We look forward to Lockheed Martin joining the consortium in creating a vibrant innovation ecosystem that supports domestic manufacturing through targeted research and workforce development.”

Power electronics is just one area Lockheed Martin is focusing on within Next-Generation Electronics. As technology advances, manufacturers must find new ways to accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies – from microelectronics to nanoelectronics – to keep pace. In doing so, Lockheed Martin can produce more secure electronics, provide technically advanced capabilities to customers, and significantly reduce the size, weight, power and cost of systems.

The company is developing next-generation carbon nanotube-based memory and logic technology. Nanotube-based/nonvolatile random access memory (NRAM®) chips can cut power use by 50 percent compared to competitive memory.

“When a spacecraft journeys into deep space, you face the challenge of additional stressors and vibrations as well as other environmental factors that might damage or destroy current electronics,” said Gerry Taylor, research science manager in the Science and Technology directorate at Lockheed Martin STAR Labs. “The levels of advanced, carbon-based materials we are looking at have the potential to eliminate these possibilities without requiring the use of heavy materials commonly employed today.”

Due to its ability to operate in harsh environments, NRAM technology is being used to store important data like images or measurements that are collected during deep-space missions. Prototype NRAM parts were successfully tested onboard the STS-125 Hubble repair mission and are being evaluated for future deep-space probes.   

Along with this technology, Lockheed Martin is also focusing on the maturation of mixed-signal microelectronics. Using mixed-signal integrated circuit technology, engineers can replace entire circuit cards using small radio frequency integrated circuit (RFIC) microchips. This breakthrough technology can drastically reduce the size of electronics and is already being used on radar systems and satellite payloads.

While it’s challenging to visualize what the next 60 years will bring for the electronics industry, Betza is confident that next-generation devices and products will be dramatically smaller, consume less energy and add ever-increasing capabilities. 

“As next-generation electronics mature to production, our goal is to ensure that these technologies are affordably adapted and applied to our systems,” Betza said. “In doing this, we will guarantee our customers’ success long into the future.”

July 9, 2014

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