Satellite constellations are the new standard of the space economy. Iridium Communications paved the way for others to launch their own constellation programs like SpaceX and OneWeb. The FCC has issued more than 19,000 licenses for satellites communications in the past years.
With so many FCC licenses being sought it has raised questions: what is the future of mass manufacturing for an industry that is experiencing its long awaited “boom time”? And, is this an indicator that the private sector is poised to deliver on mass manufacturing for aerospace, too? Since the gates have opened to the private sector, we could indeed see a faster pace of innovation, which will ultimately drive demand for smallsats, launchers, propulsion technology and beyond.
The challenges of current aerospace innovation
Aerospace innovation has traditionally been in the purview of the government and the military, spurred by the needs of defense and national security. The design of these satellites and thrusters are developed and manufactured for a single-use mission — good for a glorious, albeit one-time use but the custom products are not at all suited for mass production for a constellation application. The current supply chain process is inefficient, beset with long lead times, unnecessary layers of approval and overextended budgets. For example, a geostationary spacecraft takes two to three years to build, while an automotive company can build a car in less than a day.
So, even if the mass production of satellites was an option, the business-as-usual system is still inherently flawed by long lead times and an arduous process in the supply chain, unless we re-envision the entire manufacturing supply chain. Standardization, too, is key. The demand for commercial and government satellites fluctuates, so standardizing components across different satellites would enable suppliers to build parts to reduce being fazed by these temporary market changes. Standardization allows for complex spacecraft subsystems, like propulsion, to capitalize on efficiencies gained by standard product-to-market planning.
Smallsat demand is growing, and the industry must keep up
With the uptick in FCC licenses, we’re likely to see a boom in demand of small satellite production and a significant demand to launch smallsats and other missions into deep space. Given the meteoric growth of data and communications, we can and must rethink how we design and manufacture for products used in space.
The reasons are fairly straightforward. We need to rethink smallsat manufacturing and provide the industry with the necessary logistics and processes, minimizing costs and maximizing reliability and transparency. And what’s better, investors are eager to jump on board, too. Already, satellite constellation production is driven largely by commercial investments, rather than the government.
Three solutions to modernize smallsat manufacturing
Fortunately, there are solutions to this bottleneck.
First, we need to rethink manufacturability. We need to move away from custom designs and toward commercial off the shelf components that lends itself to achieve scalable mass production in a cost-effective way. Designing spacecraft components for manufacturability and easy integration is key.
Second, we need to seriously consider “pop-up” manufacturing, an on-site manufacturing center brought to customer hubs. With on-site manufacturing, we’re able to reduce lead time spent assembling, disassembling and shipping- not to mention leveraging customer teams to answer questions in real time and improving transparency. Take, for instance, the boom in 3D printing, bringing innovation straight to the source. If a company can use a 3D printer on-site and avoid waiting times in the supply chain with third-party vendors and multiple transactions, why can’t we do that with small satellite manufacturing and propulsion systems?
Third – and this is critical – if the private sector is to become a major player in the small satellite industry, it must be transparent and efficient. Blockchain, for example, can ensure everyone in the industry is aboveboard, avoiding opaque transactions. Furthermore, implementing blockchain to supply chain systems and artificial intelligence can also reduce time spent on multiple levels of approvals among various customers, partners and suppliers to trim down on unnecessary contractual document transaction time.
“The public and private sectors must work together as partners and pioneers to leverage its vast potential for humankind,” said Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a recent op-ed. He is right. There is so much to be gained from deep space exploration: from potentially life-saving research in biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries; to GPS technology that we use for financial networks, weather forecasting and navigation; to safety and security.
We can improve smallsat manufacturability by embracing new systems and ushering in technologies that aren’t typically aligned with aerospace manufacturing, making the process customer-centric. Then the space economy can begin to evolve from a custom territory into a robust, prosperous and thrilling expedition designed to benefit all of us.
Laura Overly is the Director of Supply Chain for Phase Four, a California-based manufacturer of plasma propulsion technology to enable satellite missions to achieve their full potential.