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An astounding mission to bring the internet to everyone on the planet is changing the way we think about mass production and procurement. Airbus OneWeb Satellites is shattering earthly bonds and long-held expectations about the limits of possibility.
Every day, Airbus OneWeb Satellites (AOS) does the impossible. AOS is the manufacturer of the OneWeb Constellation, a network of hundreds and potentially thousands of small, low-Earth orbit satellites, bringing affordable high-speed internet access to everyone, everywhere. Formed as a joint venture between OneWeb, a British startup now majority owned and controlled by India’s Bharti Enterprises and the Government of the United Kingdom, and Airbus, the doyenne of global aerospace companies, AOS is the first company to apply serial production techniques to satellites at an industrial scale, setting a new paradigm in manufacturing and revolutionizing space procurement.
The satellites that AOS produce are smaller than traditional satellites, weighing just 150 kg (330 pounds) and manufactured at 1/50th the cost of a traditional unit. Incredibly, AOS’s production flow is geared to produce up to two satellites a day, with significant surge capacity built in, whereas traditional satellite production was measured in years.
Over 110 satellites have been launched to date, and the remainder are scheduled to be in space and operational by 2022. Between 32-36 satellites are launched at a time on a single rocket that carries them to a low-Earth orbit of approximately 1,200 km (745 miles).
The satellites were designed, and the first models were built, in AOS’s facility in Toulouse, France. In 2019, AOS shifted to full serial production at its 100,000-sq-ft state-of-the-art manufacturing facility located next to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
A model of international cooperation, the project brings together global suppliers in a complex and diverse supply chain. The multinational procurement team features native speakers of nine languages, and suppliers distributed across 11 time zones.
“In terms of work share, it was important that companies were gaining an advantage from the potential benefits of this program and ultimately the New Space industry, and being the first to engage in mass production for satellite manufacturing is a distinct advantage.”
It’s the first-ever mass production of space equipment, and Judy Wallace is responsible for getting all the pieces together. As Chief Procurement Officer for the venture, she oversees a 30-person strong multinational team, geographically split between Florida and France. With 30 Tier 1 suppliers and roughly 200 Tier 2 and Tier 3 vendors, Wallace and AOS have taken the industrial serial supply chain model from the world of aircraft and applied it to the formerly bespoke world of satellites.
“Our industrial model relies on outside companies, so we have a mindset of coalitions and international partnerships,” she said. “The ability to manage that kind of network is all about partnerships and building relationships. These aren’t one-off contracts; we are doing something that’s never been done before in the space industry, and the strength of those relationships are absolutely key to our success."
“The fact that we rely on this big supply chain also means that we have the ability to tap into a wider range of innovation. Going forward that’s a really important point. These companies are continuously innovating, they have their own significant R&D budgets, so that also means that in the future we can continue proposing to OneWeb, and other customers, cutting-edge, state-of-the-art satellite equipment.”
While other industrial models for space equipment are structured to create the majority of components in house, the AOS approach is meant to foster international cooperation, an aspect of the project that is as integral to the venture as the design, manufacture, and launch of the equipment itself.
While many suppliers come from the traditional space industry, others are experts from the automotive, aircraft, and semiconductor industries. “It makes for a great wealth of knowledge and different visions. We quite often challenge our visions internally, and I think this is what makes us solution-oriented because there is a vast range of experience in this extended team. We have been confronted with a lot of issues and challenges in our various careers. If you’re trying to develop a lightweight carbon fiber A350 aircraft, let’s say, or if you’re trying to develop a nano satellite, there are a lot of similarities in terms of procurement and supply chain techniques – we capitalize on these best practices, to move faster, more efficiently.”
(Wallace knows about what it takes to build the A350: She led the procurement efforts that put the bird in the air.)
The venture brings the concept of “fail fast” to the space industry, a pioneering move in itself. “That’s very different from traditional space methods particularly in Europe, where everything is pre-analyzed, risk-assessed, you then know where you’re going, but it takes six to 12 months in terms of the analysis and implementation on some processes. We do it completely differently. We’ll say, ‘Let’s try this,’ and we’ll know in a week’s time if it’s the right approach. We are continuously trying, testing, changing our working methods, we pride ourselves in our agility,” she revealed.
“Another strength is on the engineering and quality side. We have numerous engineers, experts from the traditional space sector, people who have designed, qualified, and built satellites in a traditional manner. We do apply the same rigorous standards of engineering, qualification, and quality from traditional space to our mass-produced satellites. In fact, by combining traditional quality control with our model of serial procurement and automated production, we actually achieve the same quality standards as traditional space products, at rates 300 times higher.”
Reimagining Procurement for Space
As an industry leader in the procurement processes, AOS runs internal programs and challenges to get suppliers to produce in concert with the venture’s ambitious timelines. “We’ve cut up the traditional end-to-end procurement process: from RFIs and RFPs, to the selection process, through the whole engineering cycle—the preliminary design review and the critical design review, we've challenged that at each phase, and have reduced by 40% the end-to-end lead time by doing things differently. Literally, we look at how we can do things quicker. Speed is of the essence.”
AOS also take a different approach with core values. “Our values have to be shared with the companies we work with, because there’s absolutely no way that we can be moving at such speeds if the companies that work with us are not challenging themselves internally to be doing the same things,” Wallace noted.
“One of the other secrets we have, without saying too much, is the diversity of our supply chain, and the selections and the choices that we make in terms of the companies we partner with. If we just look at a pie chart of where our suppliers come from, you'll see that half of them have both space heritage and mass production experience on other products. AOS is also working with a number of newcomers to the space industry and has to work closely with them to adjust to the rigorous requirements of space flight equipment.
“On the electronics side, a number of our suppliers have never had their electronics fly in space before, but they've clearly done a lot of mass production in other industries. It's all about getting them to step up to space standards.”
Wallace has a particular affinity for the 30% of suppliers that are small independents and startups. “These are small companies that had a great innovative idea, that were producing prototypes in labs, garages, and such,” she said. “The real success has been working with these small, extremely motivated teams to get them up to mass production levels and pushing them up into this market. There are a few companies on the program who, in terms of turnover and follow-on contracts, have been doubling the size of their teams to support their growth, and I'm proud to say that we've had a big part in getting them to that level of excellence.”
The sheer diversity of components can pose intriguing challenges. “We have standard mechanical parts on the less complex side of the spectrum right up to extremely complex radio frequency communication equipment. The lead times in bringing those products to maturity and ramping up in terms of production are extremely different. One of our biggest challenges is ensuring that our supply chain is evolving at the same speed.”
Supply chain digitalization is one of Wallace’s priorities going forward, including performance indicators and data exchange with our suppliers. “It brings a lot more speed and accuracy to the decision-making process—ultimately our decisions must be data-driven, it doesn't mean to say that we are relying on artificial intelligence to make decisions. We still use a lot of human intelligence in analyzing this data, and making our decisions.”
Expanding the agility and flexibility of the supply chain is another. “We are re-assessing our supply chain to ensure that we have the right level of surge capacity, and can absorb additional requests up to 50% of burst capacity in two to three months,” she said. “A classical timeline for getting that surge in place would probably be six to nine months. We're asking our team and suppliers to look at that ability to build flexibility into their industrial model, again in a challenging timeframe.”
Environmental and climate change concerns are high on the priority list as well. “We are incorporating this aspect into how we evaluate our suppliers, and select new partners. We will push them to ensure that they have solid environmental and socially responsible policies in place going forward. We'll also be looking at ourselves: how we behave, how we travel, how we transport our goods, and what kind of products we use in our FAL, and their impact on the environment," she said.
In Wallace’s world, the mandate is “higher, further, faster.” She admits to hearing “but that’s impossible” multiple times a day. “But this is part of what it takes to be revolutionizing a whole industry. We love rising to these continuous challenges. Our motto is, ‘Nothing is impossible.’"
“This is an end-to-end system that we're building. We constitute the space segment, one of the most technical and most visible parts of the system that OneWeb is building," she said. "By the end of this year in northern latitudes, including the UK, the Arctic Circle, Alaska, and Canada you'll be able to get affordable, high speed, low latency internet access via satellite. A few years ago such a goal seemed like a pipe dream.”
Airbus OneWeb Satellites (AOS) is a joint venture between Airbus and OneWeb that was formed in 2016 to design and manufacture the satellites for the OneWeb constellation. In the process, AOS has revolutionized satellite manufacturing by being the first to utilize commoditization and mass production techniques to dramatically reduce production times and costs. Where a traditional satellite may cost tens of millions of dollars and take years to build, AOS can do it at a far lower cost and at a production rate of up to two per day.
The mission is not limited to the OneWeb program. Together with Airbus, AOS is offering to the market a standardized, mass-produced satellite platform and payload interface that can be compatible with many different payloads, providing end-users with dramatic cost savings, considerable time-to-market advantages, and opening the door for missions that were previously unthinkable.
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