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Engineering Edge

Curtiss-Wright & FloTHERM™: From COTS to Custom Deployment

Curtiss-Wright is a provider of rugged, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic modules and integrated systems for defense and aerospace applications.

Having both a mechanical design and thermal design background has helped me appreciate the many different aspects of taking a product from concept to production in a short amount of time. Unless you are the sole engineer on the project, doing both thermal and mechanical design, a close working relationship between thermal engineering and mechanical design is critical to ensure on-time, low cost product delivery.

Curtiss-Wright provides rugged, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic modules and integrated systems for defense and aerospace applications. Our highly engineered solutions, ranging from open standards-based modules to fully optimized systems solutions, are deployed in a wide range of demanding applications, including C4ISR, unmanned systems, mission computing, fire control, turret stabilization, data recording and storage solutions.

As part of the Defense Solutions business unit of Curtiss-Wright Controls, the Littleton facility, Massachusetts addresses a niche market by providing quick turn-around custom electronics enclosures to our customers. Typically, this involves very low volume (quantities between 1 and 15 units), and production delivery in around 20 weeks, which leaves no time for prototyping or testing. We rely completely on engineering experience and thermal simulation to meet our requirements. FloTHERM® allows us to iterate multiple scenarios to optimize our systems for not only thermal performance, but also weight reduction, noise reduction, cost and schedule.

Figure 1 High density, conduction cooled power supply with supplemental air cooling via pin fin heatsink

As a result of FloTHERM's versatility we have the ability to offer our customers a variety of solutions. To further define the operations of Curtiss-Wright's Littleton facility, our activities often involve supplying a metal enclosure (typically brazed aluminum),backplane and power supply all designed to meet specific customer specifications. Our customers populate the enclosure with their own suite (or payload) of electronics. We are usually provided very little information on the design or end-function of the payload.

What keeps this process from being straight-forward is the fact the Curtiss- Wright is typically only provided with specifications for the subsystem's overall sizes, power levels, ambient conditions and the temperature requirement for the electronics card mounting. From this limited amount of system detail it is our task to design a solution capable of meeting the required temperature in all environmental conditions at the given power levels.

Another challenge that our design team often faces is that in many cases enclosures designed at our facility and are sold to the end customer by a third-party for whom the Curtiss-Wright designed enclosure is essentially a component, not a product level complete system. Because our customers are usually responsible for all verification testing, we rarely receive feedback about results except for the very rare case in which a problem emerges. As these enclosures are primarily used in military applications, the environmental conditions can vary greatly and are often extreme. New products are often retrofits for older existing equipment and the new higher powered enclosures must be cooled by existing cooling systems. The challenge for our design team, including thermal and mechanical engineers working together, is to meet all of the customer's requirements in a very short timeframe.

Figure 2 1300W Custom Electronics Enclosure. The payload is cooled by conduction, Enclosure is air

The ambient conditions in which the resulting system must perform are harsh, and the power levels required are typically high. Hence thermal simulation is critical for our business, especially since delivery schedules are often very tight.

In order to expedite the design process, Curtiss-Wright has established a consistent method of tracking all thermal design information. This includes tracking the initial customer requirements all the way to documenting the 'as built' configuration. By using a custom spreadsheet template containing the relevant design information we are able to track and maintain information from project to project in a consistent manner. The spreadsheet template contains the initial customer requirements that are used in the quoting process. Since thermal design is one of the highest risk factors in almost every design we undertake, we closely analyze the project's thermal requirements even before we are awarded the job. In many cases we perform some preliminary level of simulation work before the contract has been formally awarded. This initial amount of simulation ensures our customers that we are able to solve their particular design problem. The thermal spreadsheet template also provides our Applications Department a starting point for new designs and saves time in the quoting process.

Geometry used in very early simulation work may turn out to be quite different from what mechanical requirements will later dictate. Frequently, the enclosure space is dictated by mechanical constraints that are not fully defined at the quoting stage. This is because numerous system features such as I/O connections, cabling and air plenum allotment may not yet be determined at this early stage of development. After the results of a preliminary thermal simulation indicate that the customer requirements can be met, the mechanical design process begins. There are often several iterations back and forth between the design engineering and thermal engineering teams to reach a final solution. One design aspect that demands this level of attention is fin optimization. FloTHERM makes it quick and easy to optimize for pitch, thickness, number of fins or base thickness. Each product we design is fully customized so there is very little opportunity for design reuse. For example, the cooling wall (our heatsink) geometry is designed for each particular application to ensure the best design at the lowest cost for each product. While the final solution may be similar to the starting point in the thermal design, it is never exactly the same. Although the time and cost saved by eliminating early prototypes, testing, evaluation and redesign is hard to measure, when delivery schedules are as tight any and all time savings are crucial to our customer's success.

Another key to successful design is a team that works extremely well together. Curtiss-Wright's Littleton facility is staffed with a group of talented mechanical engineers who all work in sync to meet the end goal, which is to deliver a high quality product to our customers every time.

Figure 3 Air flow profile of 1300W enclosure, showing power supply fins and system fans

About Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions

Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions (CWCDS) is a long established technology leader in the development of rugged electronic modules and systems for defense applications. CWCDS serves as a technology and integration partner to its customers, providing a full range of advanced, highly engineered solutions from modular open systems approaches to fully custom optimized solutions. Our unmatched capabilities and product breadth span from industry standard based COTS modules to complete electronic subsystems. The company’s modules and systems are currently deployed in a wide range of demanding defense & aerospace applications including C4ISR systems, unmanned subsystems, mission computing, fire control, turret stabilization, and recording & storage solutions. Additionally, the company’s broad engineering capabilities combine systems, software, electrical, and mechanical design expertise with comprehensive program management and a broad range of life-cycle support services. For more information visit

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