External Manufacturing Options for Space Flight Hardware Production

Created 4 months ago
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Earth in Outer Space

New paradigms in the space industry call for new ways of approaching satellite and flight hardware manufacturing. As the commercial satellite industry moves toward smaller, higher quantity spacecraft, manufacturing approaches need to adapt accordingly. 

Many new satellite companies are emerging that are relatively small in size. Their capital is probably not best spent on manufacturing facilities, personnel and infrastructure. Outsourcing the production of their hardware designs to a contract manufacturer (CM) is in many cases the best option. For large established space companies outsourcing higher volume manufacturing may be the right decision as well. Long time players in the industry are oftentimes not set up for the serial production that is a relatively new phenomenon in commercial spaceflight. These companies may also benefit from CMs who have supply chains in place better suited for higher production volumes.

In the case of commercial satellite constellations where production requirements are relatively high volume by space standards it makes sense to consider utilizing a CM that is not a traditional space-/aerospace-oriented company. Many traditional space hardware manufacturers are set up for low volume production of large, expensive spacecraft. The economic constraints on small sats make it difficult to achieve low unit costs in this type of manufacturing environment. A CM that routinely works in higher volumes is more oriented toward continuing to find and exploit opportunities for efficiencies in the manufacturing process. These firms may also have more experience in DFM for established products to help reduce hardware COGS.

The obvious drawback to working with a non-traditional CM is that they won’t have the experience that is specific to the production of flight hardware for space. The customer must be willing to develop the CM and share its space-specific expertise when necessary. To some degree, however, this lack of exposure to the space industry can also be an advantage. These CMs will not have developed the culture and overhead that is present in the space industry which can add to cost and reduce agility. The space culture was certainly developed for good reason and quality systems and hardware reliability should not be compromised. Because quality cannot be sacrificed the right CM must be selected for flight hardware production.

The non-traditional CM must have a great deal of experience working on equipment that is for quality critical environments. The medical device and semiconductor manufacturing equipment industries for example require extreme reliability and very robust quality control systems. CMs accustomed to building medical devices/hardware will be especially accustomed to materials traceability and control as well as adherence to SOPs, specifications, and work instructions. The medical device industry also requires thorough documentation and risk assessment. The semiconductor tool/equipment industry requires clean room assembly of complex hardware for service in high vacuum environments as well as ESD and other material handling and control constraints that are in some ways similar to space hardware manufacturing. Both these industries require the CM to have a rigorous quality system as well as cost constraints that require lean and efficient manufacturing methods. Satellite companies could benefit from this manufacturing efficiency.

In summary, if carefully selected, a CM who does not have extensive space heritage but has the characteristics described above can be an excellent manufacturing partner to produce higher volume flight hardware for the space industry.

Keller Technology has the quality systems, facilities, skilled personnel and experience to be your flight hardware manufacturing partner. Let us help your manufacturing process become adaptable for the future of the space/aerospace industry by requesting a quote today.

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