Five lessons when manufacturing space products

Plexus’ space technology manager, Ellie Ebrahimi, shares five key lessons for new space companies and startups as they embark on their growth journey

Plexus’ space technology manager, Ellie Ebrahimi

Scaling up manufacturing for space applications can be daunting for new space companies and startups. It’s essential to ensure production can meet growing demand while maintaining quality and reliability.

Lesson 1: Knowing your market approach

Traditional space industry approaches have been effective at minimising risk but can be time-consuming, costly and document-heavy. The shift to ‘new space’ has brought changes. The need to launch satellites into LEO in a shorter timeline, while minimising costs, has led to a more balanced approach between development and qualification time, non- recurring expenses, product cost and residual risk. This balance needs to be achieved early in the project definition stage, allowing for efficient and focused engineering
and product realisation.

To achieve this, a risk- based approach can be employed, where the system architecture, mission profile and targets are assessed to determine the acceptable level of risk. A useful tool is FMEA (failure modes and effects analysis)/FMECA (failure mode, effects and criticality analysis), whichidentifies potential failure modes and their effects, plus their criticality. This helps identify the required design margins to meet relevant qualification requirements.

This approach facilitates the necessary trade-offs and allows for efficient development and testing while minimising costs and risks. Experienced suppliers can help ease the challenges in assessing trade-offs and ensure development and mission needs are met.

Lesson 2: Optimizing the design process

When it comes to space manufacturing, getting the design right is crucial. A tried and tested Design for Excellence (DfX) integration process helps streamline the design phase, reducing costs/time-to-market and eliminating surprises during new product introduction. DfX reviews should be conducted by dedicated professionals at various stages of the design cycle, making it easy to implement changes efficiently and cost-effectively. This process relies on a network of downstream stakeholders, including supply chain solutions, test, manufacturing, and sustaining services, which are best served through a comprehensive engagement model tailored to business needs.

In the space industry, where supply chains are intricate and lead times longer, engaging with a third-party bespoke DfX expert can be valuable. It ensures the product is optimised for manufacturing, leading to reduced costs, improved quality and higher reliability—ultimately resulting in increased product longevity.

In addition, the design phase is an opportunity to maximise sustainability and Plexus encourages space technology companies to consider and evaluate all possibilities at this stage. Doing so ensures each new product manufactured is fully functional but not at a cost to the environment.

By optimising the design process through DfX integration, ensures the manufacturing process is streamlined, efficient and cost-effective, while maintaining high levels of quality and reliability.

Lesson 3: Optimising the supply chain

In an industry as fast-paced and complex as new-space, ensuring secure and reliable supply chains is crucial. The pandemic’s lasting effects and ongoing geopolitical tensions only add to the risks to mitigate. This isn’t just about finding alternative resources and logistics at short notice; it’s about developing a comprehensive network that reaches across all areas of the supply chain.

Quick turnaround times are critical for space products, which often require numerous iterations. The importance of maintaining quality and pace cannot be understated. Selecting the right suppliers and ensuring they meet quality and regulatory requirements is vital, as is having the ability to scale production with distributors who can grow and keep pace with technical changes. Partnering with experts can make all the difference.

It is not just about having the resource knowledge to know where and how to locate suitable alternatives for components and logistics at pace but incorporating an understanding of pain points likely to impact efforts to do this. This is where a partner can really help—by acting as an extension of your team to address these issues in a timely and cost-effective fashion.

Lesson 4: Developing the test strategy

Developing a comprehensive and cost-effective test strategy is essential to ensure success. With the high complexity and high value of space products, even the smallest defects can have significant consequences. This is why detecting defects early in the manufacturing process is crucial. The test strategy should encompass all available test and inspection processes, accounting for regulatory requirements and the manufacturing process that affects the testability and defects.

Developing the right test strategy will avoid issues down the line as repair costs for a faulty module increase by a factor of ten for each additional process step (Rule of Ten). A partner can add extra capacity to support test strategy implementation, combining different test methods to ensure all bases are covered.

Lesson 5: End-of-life plan

As space manufacturing continues to expand and innovate, so does the responsibility of space manufacturers to consider their products’ end-of-life. Limiting space debris, minimising the possibility of collisions and maintaining satellites in orbit are all critical aspects of a broader commitment to sustainability and environmental standards. Interrogating and exploring the extent to which products can be reused or recycled at the design stage will maximise capacity for meeting these responsibilities head on.

By taking a risk-based approach and engaging experienced partners, space companies can achieve an efficient and cost-effective route to market while also mitigating the risks inherent in space manufacturing.