A New Era in Space Communications Enabled by MDA Automation

Since the advent of geostationary (GEO) communication satellites in the early 1960s, our lives have irreversibly changed. Orbiting more than 35,000 km above the Equator these massive satellites enable our connected world with voice, data, and entertainment content we have all come to depend on at work and at home. As remarkable as the technology is behind today’s GEO satellites, changing market demand is driving a new approach to communication satellites: the low Earth orbit (LEO) small satellite constellation.

The degree of change is remarkable. The largest GEO communication satellite in service, Telstar 19 VANTAGE was built by our sister company, SSL, which is also a Maxar Technologies company, and launched earlier this year. It weighs in at more than 7,000 kg. By contrast, the typical satellite flying in a LEO mega-constellation weighs around 100 kg, while cubesats and nanosats are less than 10 kg. The numbers are equally impressive: Since 1963, roughly 550 satellites have entered service in GEO orbit; the planned multiple LEO mega-constellations will each have hundreds or thousands of satellites.

GEO and LEO satellites have differing strengths. A single GEO satellite can broadcast hundreds of HD and UltraHD channels of television programming and provide internet connectivity to a third of the globe. LEO constellations provide reduced-latency for faster broadband access and they are designed to provide coverage anywhere around the globe.

For smallsat constellations, manufacturers must be able to rapidly adapt engineering, design, and manufacturing processes to simultaneously address technical change and enable mass production to meet budget and schedule requirements. The opportunity for satellite manufacturers and suppliers is the potential to enter this growing market by ramping up production to meet demand. 


Enter MDA Automation

Prime contractors and operators facing the new era of LEO broadband can count on MDA to engineer, manufacture, and test large-volume production of spacecraft antennas required meeting constellation-driven demand. MDA has moved to advanced manufacturing technology, optimizing its design, production and testing capabilities without compromising quality to successfully meet today’s evolving demand of the new space economy. Because of the production quantities involved, MDA also took its design for manufacturing automation to the next level. 



What is MDA’s vision of automation?

In order to achieve the high production rates required for satellite constellation programs, MDA has had to rethink and remodel traditional handcrafting processes and procedures. MDA’s vision of automation is based on the use of small collaborative robots assisting the employee interactively in performing high-precision assembly and testing operations. These robots improve the accuracy, repeatability and efficiency of work. Automation is not limited to hardware manipulation, but extends to all steps in the process flow including unit identification, data acquisition and preparation of end item data packages (EIDPs). Having experienced the enormous benefits of this automation approach on some constellation programs, MDA is tasking a multi-disciplinary team of manufacturing engineers, designers and technical experts to identify further opportunities on all upcoming programs where collaborative robotics can improve cost, schedule and quality.


How do we apply large volume fabrication techniques while ensuring the highest level of quality?

Design-for-manufacturing and assembly principles are rigorously applied throughout the design process to ensure that components and parts ultimately meet performance requirements whilst enabling high-volume machining and fabrication methods with little human intervention. For example, during the design phase, particular attention is paid to design features, form factors, and tolerances which are consistent with the intended fabrication method and that would provide maximum yield. Provision is also made in the design for features that would facilitate automated assembly.

The incoming inspection process is streamlined by applying first-article-inspection (FAI) on critical parts whilst other parts in the same lot and lesser critical parts are randomly sample tested prior to kitting. Parts and components are then inserted in the automated assembly line, where robotic workstations, able to work around the clock without human intervention, identify the parts by scanning a bar-code, execute specific high-precision alignment and assembly steps and then perform RF performance tests.

Frequent calibration checks are performed to ensure the test setups remain calibrated. The robotic stations record the performance data and make a determination of the compliance of the assembled part. It should be noted that automated testing includes a wide range of performance parameters including S-parameters as well as radiated performance if required. If the assembled part meets requirements, the assembly is placed in a Green bin in preparation for subsequent steps and the workstation simultaneously records and compiles data sheets for the internal database as well as the EIDP.  If any non-compliance is detected and calibration has been verified, the part is placed in a Red bin for further investigation. This is done in parallel without slowing down the main assembly line. In this way quality is ensured while maintaining a high production rate.

In summary, automated robotic stations improve:

·         Time and cost effectiveness,

·         Robustness and reliability,

·         Quality and process consistency


This manufacturing philosophy, which is based on automated connectivity, is known as “Industry 4.0.” It is often considered to be the latest industrial revolution and, in the new space era particularly with large constellation programs, such capabilities are crucial for space hardware manufacturers to maintain their competitiveness.


Why is it important to have an automation strategy for testing?

In order to monitor the automated process and to manage the recurring production flow, the workstations populate and maintain a database. This database contains a complete dataset for each assembly including readings taken from devices, tools and test stations along the process flow and is employed to detect trends and identify possible underlying causes. This automated data gathering and trend analysis allows the production team to take action on a timely basis to ensure the production rate and quality are maintained. In some cases, information gathered from the database may identify design improvements that would improve yield. This automated testing strategy allows large amounts of data to be collected and processed whilst maintaining a high production rate. Importantly, this method also paves the way for artificial intelligence to be introduced which would further improve yield and efficiency. 

Why does human interaction matter in automation?

Whereas robotic workstations assist human technicians and considerably ease the physical burden and time required  for many repetitive, high-precision and time-consuming tasks, human interaction remains crucial in this new era to deal with unexpected circumstances and problem-solving. In addition, human intervention is required for maintenance and improvement of the process and assembly line.

It is not anticipated that robotic workstations would ever completely replace the innovative thinking or experienced eye and dexterous hand of the human, however, the challenge is to determine how humans and robots can best work together to optimize quality and productivity in this new and exciting space era.

For more information on MDA’s advanced satellite manufacturing capabilities, visit us online at mdacorporation.com, or send your queries directly to info@mdacorporation.com

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