The projected buildup in America’s defensive arsenal may be a double-edged sword for companies that make VME and VPX boards, which are widely used in many military systems. They’ll be ramping up design efforts to meet market demands, but it remains difficult to hire and train engineers for the combination of high performance and extensive ruggedization military markets require.
VME and VPX modules are mainstays in many military environments like aerospace, but there’s a growing effort within this small community to expand into large commercial vehicles like trains, which have similar requirements for ruggedness and very long lifetimes. IHS Markit expects VME-VPX revenues to grow from $493 million in 2015 to $576 million in 2020. Though most companies in this field are small, representatives at the recent Embedded Tech Trends conference said hiring is fairly brisk.
“We’ve got eight tech openings, which is a lot for a 60-person company,” said Kenneth Brown, program manager at LCR Embedded Systems Inc. “We’re looking for mechanical and electrical engineers, both new college graduates and experienced engineers."
However, hiring levels for small companies often ebb and flow quickly, depending on outlooks for pending projects. Until President Trump’s planned uptick in defense spending actually passes and kicks in, many companies will be cautious about growing their head counts. One company scaled back shortly after the election.
“At the beginning of 2016, we were on a hiring spree,” Douglas Patterson, sales and marketing vice president at Aitech Defense Systems Inc., said before Trump’s proposed defense increase was announced. “We had six openings at the start of this year, but they’re gone now. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about the defense market.”
There’s more certainty on the direction of design efforts. They increasingly focus on commercial off the shelf (COTS) products, which typically trim costs over the full custom design projects of past years. While this change is occurring at a slower pace than many expected, it’s now dominating many product strategies.
“Customers don’t even want to look at solutions that aren’t COTS,” said Bill Ripley, Senior Designer at Alligator Designs Pvt Ltd. “They don’t want to pay for development. Suppliers need to start designing products, not starting projects.”
Though the products are becoming standardized, the challenges are anything but normal. Applications are as diverse as submarines, troop carriers, remote-controlled robots and unmanned aerial vehicles. The array of sensors carried on these vehicles is expanding. Rugged design requirements are more stringent than in most fields. That’s especially true in the growing field of satellites, where it takes years and millions of dollars to replace a vehicle shut down by a module failure. It takes time to get engineers to understand the intricacies of selecting component for satellites.
“It doesn’t matter whether we hire experienced engineers or college graduates,” Aitech’s Patterson said. "We need to bring them in house and work with them for three to six months to learn the processes we use for products that go into space.”
Finding the right staffers is perhaps harder than training them in the subtleties of harsh, high-performance environments. Most of the companies in the VME-VPX worlds are small, so they’re competing with large companies. Many suppliers have an ongoing need for technologists, so it’s difficult for them to match the resources of huge multi-national companies. Regardless of their home base, it’s often easiest to work with known entities like local colleges.
“We’re mainly looking for software engineers in Europe, but it’s hard to find people,” said Michael Plannerer, director of global R&D at Men Mikro Elektronik GmbH, based in Nuremberg, Germany. “There’s a lot of competition from big companies like Siemens. A company our size needs a good relationship with universities.”
International hiring usually isn’t an option for companies working on advanced military projects. In the United States, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) rules limit the role of many foreign engineers. Other countries have similar requirements designed to keep government secrets from leaking to other countries. That can limit hiring from beyond national borders.
“We’re hiring engineers and programmers in India for products that will be sold to Indian companies,” said Pawan Seth, a director at Alligator Designs of Bangalore, India. “We’re also planning to hire some people in the U.S. for our operations there. Military equipment sold in the U.S. has to be designed by people in the U.S.”
As VME-VPX module makers grapple with today’s hiring challenges, they’re also gearing up for a dramatic change. It’s becoming increasingly challenging to develop software that lets sensors identify targets and program autonomous vehicles that create their own routes to accomplish a task. Module makers designing these technologies and other complex systems are following the trend to employ technologies like neural networks and deep learning, which will ripple out to many aspects of the design, test and build process.
“Machine learning and artificial intelligence are exploding,” said Simon Collins, Senior Product Manager at Adlink Technology Inc. “It’s really a big change to go from hand coding, which is difficult to do as complexity rises, to using AI and deep learning.”