Thursday, February 23, 2017

Boeing Looks to Build Satellites More Quickly, With Fewer Workers: Aerospace giant to rely more on 3-D printing, automated testing of components to speed up assembly process, reduce glitches

The Wall Street Journal
February 21, 2017 10:53 a.m. ET

Boeing Co. is taking steps to build satellites more quickly through new production practices that will rely more on 3-D printing and involve fewer workers, which eventually could transform the aerospace giant’s traditional way of turning out high-end commercial and military spacecraft.

The company’s proposed changes, spelled out in an interview by Paul Rusnock, who leads Boeing’s satellite business, already have taken hold in the small-satellite world and shaken up that segment of the industry.

“Our roadmaps are really focused on simplifying the overall architecture and design of satellites so they can be assembled more quickly,” Mr. Rusnock said. “Making them simpler, easier to put together” also reduces production glitches, he said.

The effort is part of management’s latest bid to become more competitive in an evolving industry. “We cannot continue to do what we’ve been doing and stay competitive,” he said.

Historically, satellites generally have relied on highly customized, by-hand assembly procedures that slowed production and boosted costs. But starting with small satellites, proponents of change are devising new methods that entail bringing together standardized, pretested modular components and sidestepping most of the painstaking testing and integration currently carried out on the factory floor.

Now, internal test protocols “basically tell the spacecraft to check itself,” Mr. Rusnock said.

The outcome, according to Boeing officials, ultimately is likely to reduce the longevity of some communications satellites—potentially cutting in half today’s typical useful life of 15 years or more—partly by eliminating certain expensive redundant systems on board.

Some of the new manufacturing processes—including 3-D printing—have been implemented inside Boeing’s sprawling facility in suburban Los Angeles, while others are still in the planning stages. The effort is expected to require years, as well as the buy-in of satellite customers, to yield substantial results.

But Mr. Rusnock stressed that Boeing is adopting the concepts for various models and is actively looking to begin implementing them on selected commercial projects.

Change could speed up if Boeing is successful in winning bids on various projects expected to be announced in coming months, Mr. Rusnock said, declining to identify any prospective customers.

The benefits of the new process, according to Mr. Rusnock, are slated to be lower acquisition costs for operators while provide them greater opportunities to launch upgraded technology before hardware becomes outdated in orbit.

“I hear customers talking about” a shorter lifespan for satellites “instead of a 15-year paradigm,” he said.

Boeing’s satellite models typically take five years to design and build. Some of them can be as large as a school bus, weigh thousands of pounds and cost roughly $150 million. The number of satellites built annually can be counted on two hands.

By contrast, various makers of small satellites, often weighing only dozens or hundreds of pounds, have adopted some of the faster, less-expensive production techniques eyed by Mr. Rusnock. For example, a joint venture between Airbus SE and OneWeb Ltd., a startup planning to offer global internet connections via satellites, is setting up an automated assembly line in Florida to crank out hundreds of satellites a year—each costing around $1 million.

Senior Airbus officials have said the OneWeb project is intended to help the European aerospace powerhouse become the industry leader in high-volume spacecraft manufacturing.

Over the years, Boeing built its reputation making complex, highly reliable satellites that tended to be on the expensive side.

Ultimately, Mr. Rusnock said, “there’s nothing stopping us” from realizing huge reductions in production schedules. Final assembly and painting of an entire Boeing 737 jetliner takes 11 days, he noted, “and we’re looking in that direction as to how we make that happen” for spacecraft.

The efforts come after personnel cuts in the satellite unit in 2015, and coincides with Boeing’s announcement in November that it was realigning defense and space businesses to cut facilities and increase efficiency and collaboration throughout the U.S., as well as globally.

Boeing’s space operation, including units besides satellite manufacturing, employs some 14,000 workers in California. Down the road, management is betting that additional satellite orders will offset anticipated personnel cuts.

The modular approach also is gaining traction in other corners of the satellite world. Boeing customer ViaSat Inc., on its own, is building the communications portion of a super-powerful satellite network that will use Boeing’s power and propulsion hardware.

“A big part of the lead time is because of the customization” required for typical satellites, according to Mark Dankberg, ViaSat’s chairman and chief executive. Instead, ViaSat designs flexible and modular packages, he said in an interview last week, built around advanced digital systems focused on “making a single spacecraft be able to do multiple different missions.”

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