Greater standardization only way to meet demand for faster, cheaper satellites, builders say
PARIS — Pressure for faster delivery of satellites, the arrival of mega-constellations and requirements for quicker introduction of innovative technologies is pushing satellite manufacturers towards more standardization as the industry faces what has been described as unprecedented changes.
Speaking at the World Satellite Business Week here Sept. 13, executives of leading satellite manufacturers Thales Alenia Space, SSL, Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK, agreed that innovative approaches are needed to face the changing requirements of the customers.
“The lead times used to be 36 months,” said Jean-Loïc Galle, President and CEO of Thales Alenia Space. “Now customers are asking between 12 and 18 months of lead time of production. We all know it is extremely difficult to build a satellite in 12 months.”
According to Galle, meeting such requirements is only possible by using standardized buses and payloads that could be just taken off the shelf.
Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group, said that in addition to decreasing lead times, using standardized technology as much as possible would also help reduce cost for the customer, another major pressure the manufacturers are facing.
“We are trying to standardize across the product lines as much as we can to make it more cost-effective,” Culbertson said. “This allows us to be as efficient as possible.”
Dario Zamarian, president of Space Systems Loral, agreed: “If we can push standardization to the limit on the bus and spacecraft side, the whole industry would benefit,” he said. “We then push the differentiation on the payload side.”
The manufacturers agreed that the growing popularity of smaller satellite platforms together with the arrival of small sat mega-constellations and the increasing convergence between commercial and governmental satellite technology is favoring the standardization trend.
Despite the decline in the number of geostationary satellites orders, which they experienced in 2017, the manufacturers believe that new opportunities will make up for the losses. In fact, Zamarian said, with the potential arrival of satellite servicing spacecraft in the near future, geostationary satellites are bound to become less important as an indicator of the sector’s health.
“The root cause of the issues that we are facing today is on the solution side rather then on the market side,” said Galle. “Even though there are uncertainties about what will be the verticals of the market that we will grow in the future.”
Small satellites, according to Zamarian, are now becoming the third pillar for the manufacturers, next to the geostationary and government market.
The manufacturers agreed that innovative technologies such as virtual reality, digital-enabled production, artificial intelligence and automated manufacturing are further improving the design and manufacturing processes, allowing for shorter time lines.
Arnaud de Rosnay, head of telecommunications satellites at Airbus, said that full automation of the factory floor is unlikely for satellite manufacturers, despite the large quantities of satellites that might be needed for the upcoming mega-constellations. Airbus is currently building satellites for the 700-strong OneWeb constellation at a rate of two satellites per day.
“We didn’t see the added value of the fully automated production,” Rosnay said. “We have automation when it comes to transporting hardware from A to B and helping the integration guy on the satellite. Fully automated production wouldn’t yield any significant cost or schedule improvements.”