Satellite manufacturing might be somewhat in limbo right now as operators look to see how the upcoming mega-constellations change the world of satellite communications. For manufacturers, however, there is no time to rest and wait, as they need to be prepared to satisfy their customers’ ever-growing needs, whatever they might be.
The requirements from customers are always ‘better, cheaper, faster,” says Andreas Lindenthal, chief operating officer and member of the board at Bremen, Germany-based, satellite manufacturer OHB. “For some of our customers — mainly the communication operators — the pressure in the market has increased significantly, therefore, they are not looking just for incremental improvements in this area; they are looking for disruption.”
What exactly that disruption might be is, however, somewhat uncertain. In addition to high-speed technology development, which is forcing operators to rethink traditional approaches based around large, long-lived Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites, there is a changing economic environment in which business cases are no longer as clear and stable as they once might have been. The operators need to be able to respond quickly and therefore require satellites to be delivered faster than what would have satisfied them ten years ago. “Satellite operators are telling us that they don’t have such a long term, stable unchanged business cases for 15 years, 20 years of satellite operation anymore,” says Lindenthal. “They are under pressure from their customers to have enhanced flexibility on the satellite from their side, therefore, they want to procure satellites, which are more flexible.”
In 2018, only eleven (or seven) GEO satellite orders have been placed around the world, a continuation of a decline that the industry has been witnessing in the past years. And while manufacturers believe that GEO satellite orders are likely to somewhat pick up in the future as company’s order replacements for their aging fleets, it is clear that GEO satellite orders are no longer set to remain the indicator of the satellite manufacturing industry’s health as they were in the past. “There haven’t been many orders placed. People are waiting to see what the constellation performance is going to be like,” says Aidan Joy, the head of satellite assembly integration and test at Airbus. “The overall market is in a situation now where different business models are being analyzed. But whether it’s constellations, large GEOs or medium-sized GEOs, we will see those different business models mature and as a manufacturer, we will need to be able to respond.”
Whichever the future direction, the manufacturers agree that the drive for more cost-effective solutions, shorter lead times, and increased flexibility is here to stay. The ways to meet the goal can be many, according to the manufacturers, with no one size fits all solution available.
Full Automation — Not the Way Forward
There have been many lessons learned for Airbus. The company realized that full automation —as used for example in the manufacturing of cars or planes — is not the right way forward. “We are not using a lot of automation as such,” says de Rosnay. “We have some robots and cobots but we didn’t see the case for the level of automation you could see, for example, in [the] automotive industry. While thousands of satellites might be a lot for satellite manufacturing, the volume is still relatively small compared to let say cars or mobile phones.” Instead, he says, digital smart tools assist human operators to work more efficiently and make sure that every screw is as tight as needs to be.
“Every piece of equipment has a bar code and the tooling — which is used to fit the equipment, too — has a bar code, and you scan both and the tooling knows what level of torque should be applied on every bolt,” says de Rosnay. “Once it’s done, the data is recorded and it’s validated through 3D scanning. All this is really adding value to the assembly of the hardware and removing the risk of anomalies because we have to produce faster but still keep a high level of quality.”
Airbus’ Aiden Joy believes that flexible payloads are key for future GEO missions, offering customers the benefit of using an asset for a long period of time and at the same time the ability to change the mission’s specifications. “At the moment the operators are in a decision period about what the optimum solutions for them might be,” says Joy. “In general, once you launched a capability, obviously the longer the life can be, the more cost-effective it is. If you can build in flexibility with things like flexible payloads, you can extend the life and potentially be able to use it for different missions.” Airbus hopes to cut lead times for large GEO satellites from three years to 18 months. The way to achieve that, Joy says, is in greater standardization and modularity of spacecraft.
Airbus’ upcoming Eurostar Neo GEO bus has been designed not only to be customizable but also modular so that the mission can be scaled up or down based on the requirements.
Further improvements can be achieved with the implementation of new manufacturing techniques including additive manufacturing, digitalization, and the use of big data to optimize design and manufacturing. And whilst no one knows in which direction the market eventually decides to go, the need for flexibility might in the future apply not only to satellites and payloads but to satellite manufacturing itself.
“We need to be ready to respond wherever the market goes,” says Joy. “We need to have the flexibility in our systems to be able to build whatever the market needs. It’s possible that in the future, we will be building significant numbers of geostationary satellites over a period of a couple of years and then we may need to switch to constellations.”
The world of satellite manufacturing is clearly changing. But where exactly it will go in the future, only time will tell.
3D Printing — An Enabler of a Satellite Manufacturing Revolution
U.S. satellite manufacturer Lockheed Martin is on a mission to slash lead times and cost of satellite manufacturing by 50 percent. One of the company’s key tools for achieving this goal is additive manufacturing or 3D printing. Whilst the space industry has been a rather slow adopter of the disruptive technology, Lockheed’s additive manufacturing manager Brian Kaplun says that the technology has made some massive strides over the past few years and is now very much in the mainstream.
Lockheed’s first 3D printed part was a bracket used on Nasa’s Juno mission to Jupiter, which launched in 2011. Since then, the company’s catalog of 3D printed components has expanded massively with the latest achievement being two large titanium domes for high-pressure fuel tanks to be used onboard satellites. At 46 inches (117cm), the two domes are the largest 3D printed structures Lockheed Martin has ever created for space applications. “We are able to additively produce thermal structures, we can now build entire bus structures for smaller satellites in one fell swoop, we can incorporate electronics into our design and then build them as one cohesive unit,” Kaplun told Via Satellite. “We have additively produced propellant tanks for a range of commercial and governmental customers.”
What in the past could have taken years to make can be manufactured within months or weeks with 3D printing? The propellant tanks, for example, using the traditional forging technology, would have had lead times anywhere from a year and a half to two years,” says Kaplun. “With additive manufacturing, we have produced an equivalent for the forgings in two weeks.
Additive manufacturing, Kaplun says, allows Lockheed Martin to make preforms for parts that would traditionally take a long time to make or create bespoke tools for traditional manufacturing. Thanks to technology, the company can also experiment with new materials at a faster rate. “3D printing allows for a much more rapid turn,” says Kaplun. “We can get test articles to customers and to our material analysis. It’s really an enabling technology for our material science.”
From metals such as titanium or aluminum to polymers doped with additives with electrostatic and electrical properties, the range of materials Lockheed Martin’s engineers can use to create satellite parts is expanding. Recently, the company developed a printable form of copper that can be used to print antennas directly onto structures.
In April 2018, Lockheed announced it would cooperate with Stratasys to make bespoke 3D printed parts for the Orion spacecraft, which is set to take people to the Moon in the early 2020s.