This article originally appeared in the March 11, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
Long before Ruag began producing structures for OneWeb communications satellites, the Swiss aerospace equipment supplier noted the market shift toward large constellations and began investing in automation.
For decades, satellite operators and government agencies usually ordered one or two satellites at a time. Such spacecraft generally are designed to last 15 years or more.
For the new constellations, companies plan to launch hundreds of satellites into orbit within the span of two or three years and then begin replacing them with updated technology five to seven years later.
“It’s not only the sheer number of components that need to be made but also the window of manufacturing is much shorter,” said Niklas Boman, Ruag Spacecraft Product Group sales and marketing director. “That’s the major change that the industry is undergoing now,” Boman said during a recent interview at the Ruag Space USA office in Santa Clara, California.
For equipment suppliers, the surge in satellite orders can seem daunting because of the quantities. A typical communications satellite structure includes 10 to 15 honeycomb or aluminum panels. Each satellite also requires 2,500 to 3,000 inserts, the attachment points for sensors or instruments. For a 500-satellite constellation order, Ruag would need to produce as many as 1.5 million inserts.
Before working on constellations, Ruag employees placed inserts in each panel manually. Now, a robotic arm picks up an insert, applies adhesive, places it in a panel and then measures to confirm its precise location.
“You can’t do 1.5 million inserts manually,” Boman said. “You need robots.”
The robots work in the 2,200 square meter manufacturing facility Ruag established in 2017 in Titusville, Florida, to manufacture satellite structures for OneWeb Satellites, the Airbus-OneWeb joint venture. Ruag is not disclosing the cost of the Titusville factory, but Boman called it a “huge investment.”
Before constellations changed the market, Ruag optimized satellite parts for technical excellence. Now, the company balances three goals. A part must be technically sufficient to perform its function. It also must be inexpensive and easily mass produced. Without all three elements, “you have no business case,” Boman said.
Ruag also supports OneWeb launches in addition to producing thermal insulation for the satellites, mechanical ground support equipment and dispensers to send 32 satellites into orbit at a time.
It was important for Ruag’s facility to be geographically close to the Airbus-OneWeb assembly, integration and test facility. While shipping parts for a single satellite is not a problem, if a company is shipping components for hundreds or thousands of satellites “logistics become a major cost factor,” Boman said. “Being geographically close to the satellite assembly, integration and test facility or the launch base has a huge impact on the overall business case.”
Ruag’s Titusville factory also is designed to support other constellations. Because the space industry is known for customizing satellites and spacecraft components, Ruag’s production line is designed to adapt to various customers seeking parts for low Earth orbit constellations as well as satellites destined for medium Earth or geostationary orbit.
“We believe much of this lower-cost technology we are building for low Earth orbit satellites is also going to end up in the geostationary and medium Earth orbit satellites,” Boman said. “They will utilize everything we produce for low Earth orbit satellites to take down the cost.”