Space Invaders

Jane Gray finds out about manufacturing for the final frontier.

The shuddering earth of the world’s 22 rocket launch pads are all well out of sight for the UK, so it can be easy for the nation’s space sector to churn along out of mind.

But a flurry of announcements this year is bringing an end to the eclipse of the industry. In January, science and universities minister David Willetts allocated £25m to the development of the UK’s national space programme and the sector is also closely linked to the successful exploitation of the £189m pot that Mr Willett’s set aside for the improved exploitation of big data since satellites play an important role in capturing data for myriad applications.

The space sector also has its own catapult centre now. The Satellite Applications (Sat Apps) Catapult opened its doors in May and has well defined targets to meet in supporting sector growth and improving the visibility of opportunities in the industry to SME firms in particular.

Those opportunities are broad ranging and, if growth targets are met, will be worth £40bn in GDP by 2030, moving from a base of around £9bn today.

A GDP value of £40bn would see the UK holding 10% of the value of the global space sector in 2030, and the outlook is good for achieving this – not least because of the news in May that ex-pilot Tim Peake will become the first official British astronaut to visit the International Space Station in December 2015.

Leaders in government and in science related industries have high hopes that ‘Major Tim’s mission will replicate the ‘Apollo effect’ experienced in the USA in the 1960s and encourage the most talented minds in Britain to pursue careers in STEM careers, benefiting not just the space sector specifically, but engineering and manufacturing in general.

Down to earth benefits

Investment in the space industry can be controversial. The above announcement regarding Tim Peake was met in some quarters with a meteor shower of angry blogs about the waste of £16m invested by UK government in signing up to the International Space Station programme thereby getting Peake a chance of selection. Critics, like Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator ask how we can justify such expenditure while industries back on earth are struggling – he particularly bemoaned the parallel decline of investment in defence manufacturing in a May article.

But Richard Peckham, business development director at Astrium, a subsidiary of EADS and the largest UK space sector prime, springs to the defence of his industry. “I can see why some of the big headline investments seem frivolous, particularly in this economic climate, but in fact, most of what the space sector does is, ironically, rather down to earth.”

He explains, “Much of what we take for granted in our day to day lives – personal and working – relies on satellite technologies today. Your weather forecast, long distance telecommunications, guidance systems, television – even terrestrial TV is mostly linked to satellites.” Other areas where satellites are collecting or generating important data, include climate change monitoring and the generation of more secure encryption codes for security and finance applications through exploitation of random high energy particles in space.

Research into the global space sector shows without a shade of doubt that commercial satellite applications are the fastest growing segment and the UK has shown itself a strong player in this arena over the last 10-years.

Peckham’s suggests that British scepticism about the value of space investment might actually be a cause for this.

“Astrium is a pan-European business and does a lot of work on European Space Agency [ESA] programmes both in the UK and elsewhere. If you take the UK business alone however, we are very heavily commercial – commercial work accounts for around 70% of what we do. This is because, historically, the UK government has not invested as much as some other ESA members.”

Case Study: ABSL

Engineering challenges and new manufacturing processes

ABSL, a subsidiary of the $2bn US company Enersys, employs around 90 people in the UK, split between sites in Culham, Oxfordshire and Therso, Scotland. Its space business turns over around £7m, and is 90% driven by its speciality, uniquely balanced, lithium ion battery products.

The skillsets and capabilities needed to keep ABSL ahead of competitors are wide ranging explains Mike Lawton, the company’s product development director. “We need chemists to understand the battery cell technology and we need a very strong skillset in specialised mechanical design for the space environment.”

Mechanical design for space must take into account some unique thermal challenges, says Lawton. “Our batteries are often integral to the thermal structure of a craft, assisting with temperature regulation. This role is complicated however, by the peculiarities of operating in a vacuum where convection cannot be used for temperature regulation.” Other mechanical design challenges associated with the vacuum of space spring from the danger of cold metal welding.

Most batteries produced by ABSL are bespoke configurations, and so these engineering challenges must be met and tackled on a case by case basis. Ongoing R&D to improve the competitiveness of products is focussed on lightweighting says Lawton, and this is behind the company’s involvement in a Technology Strategy Board project, ‘Inspiring New Design Freedom through Additive Manufacturing’.

“We want to find novel ways of manufacturing battery enclosures,” says Lawton. “At the moment this is a manuallyintensive process and involves some expensive, niche machined components.”

Finding a way to print complete enclosure structures would bring big cost, weight and efficiency benefits asserts Lawton. “One of the most interesting challenges in this exploration will be finding the right specialist alloys for the application.” For more information about how the TSB is supporting space manufacturing go to www.innovateuk.org/space

Astral opportunities

Manufacturing satellites is not high volume, but it is high value. Peckham says Astrium makes around 5 geostationary telecommunications satellites a year in the UK, each with a price tag of around $150m attached – not including launch costs or the value of launch equipment and control systems. “If we are providing these as well the value is probably double,” says Peckham.

The figures are tantalising for governments seeking ways to inject economic dynamism, but what’s the trickle down like to the supply chain? “Typically we subcontract about 70% of the manufacturing and development for one of these satellites,” says Peckham. “But the space supply chain is global and only a relatively small segment of our supply chain is based here.”

That’s something the Satellite Applications Catapult has been tasked with changing as government seeks to capture more value from the multi-million pound orders being built for global clients within its jurisdiction.

Stuart Martin, CEO of the Sat Apps Catapult, located at Harwell near Oxford, says “Fundamentally we are here to get more businesses to consider how they can benefit from a growing demand for the types of information and services that satellites can provide to everyday industries, from shipping to farming to insurance.” Many of those already working with the Sat Apps Catapult are in the business of data processing and service delivery, but Mr Martin firmly states that manufacturers too should get involved with the centre. “We are working with the whole value chain – not just satellite OEMs but also suppliers of sensor technology and with the capability to develop materials for space. It’s a unique environment. The conditions of heat and cold are extreme and once a satellite is launched, you can’t do maintenance and repair so there’s a lot of work to be done with manufacturers around redundancy, reliability and right first time.”

“The compartmentalised nature of the industry makes opportunities difficult to root out. Good marketing is essential in the space industry” – Robin Butler, Sales and Marketing Director, Sherborne Sensors

RUAG space blanket fitted to Sherborne Sensors inclinometer
Sherborne Sensors supplies custom sensors to space tech providers such as Swiss/German group RUAG Space. About 10% of Sherborne's revenue is from the space market.

A large chunk of the Sat Apps Catapult’s engagement with manufacturing is done in partnership with the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, an exciting example, says Martin, of the way in which these technology centres can cross pollinate to make commercial technology development and exploitation really robust. The Manufacturing Technology Centre, near Warwick is proving a particularly strong early partner, with programmes well underway for the improved exploitation of composites in space.

Martin says other technology interest areas where the Sat Apps Catapult is working with UK suppliers include heat shield technologies and radiation protection equipment, but there will also be a need in the future, to work with manufacturers of earth-bound products to integrate satellite communication devices more smoothly into production processes.

“We’re interested in looking at how to build satellite antenna into cars, planes and ships more attractively – and during primary production. At the moment a lot of satellite communications systems are retrofitted, particularly in the maritime sector, changing this will mean changing production processes.”

Making contact

With the Catapults’ success rates linked firmly to the economic impact they can display, engaging with SMEs, a high growth potential segment, is very important to all of the above work says Martin. “Again this applies to the whole value chain and we are working with SME manufacturers of, for example, electronic control systems as well as SMEs at the application end of the value chain.”

One way in which the Sat Apps Catapult plans to reach out to SMEs and highlight their potential to play in the space sector, is through partnership with relevant trade associations. Its work with Northern Defence Industries (NDI), a small association representing the interests of SME defence aerospace and security companies is leading the way.

“Once a satellite is launched you can’t do maintenance and repair so there’s a lot of work to be done with manufacturers around redundancy, reliability and right first time” – Stuart Martin, CEO, Satellite Applications Catapult

NDI’s chairman, Mike Maiden says that not enough of his membership realise the opportunities available to apply existing offerings or develop parallel ones for the space sector, or how much value this might bring. “There are a lot of clever ideas, designs, people currently working in the aerospace and defences sectors who could be applying their abilities in the space sector as well,” he comments. “This doesn’t just apply to traditional manufacturing. Companies that have branched out into security for example might find they have software capabilities that they could bring to bear.”

Case Study: Clyde Space

Most players in the space industry are multisector suppliers, but Glasgow-based Clyde Space is proving that a single minded focus
on technology development for space can be both possible and profitable.

We are unusual in that we manufacture 100% for the space industry,” says managing director Craig Clark. “Most other companies in the sector, particularly SMEs tend to have space as a subsector business while their bread and butter is in something relevant like defence.”

Clark started out with the intention of splitting his business across the space and renewable energy sectors. “A satellite is basically a renewable energy system in space – it’s a stack of solar panels, batteries and powered electronics. So we thought we could spin out some of the technology. But it just proved a distraction,” says Clark.

Clyde Space’s core business in in
solar panel and battery production but
strong investment in R&D has allowed
the development of a new altitude
determination and control system
which allows operators of satellites in
low earth orbit (around 2000km above
Earth) to direct their craft accurately,
despite travelling speeds of around
17,000mph (8km per second).

Excitingly, Clyde is also preparing to launch its first full satellite, a remarkably light craft that weighs in at just 4kg. “It’s like launching a laptop into space. But this is just rammed full of technology,” says Clarke.

The UKube-1 project will act as a demonstrator for an array of the company’s satellite operation technologies, but will also support six other projects from paying partners including Astrium, the University of Bath and Glasgowbased software company Steepest Ascent. The satellite’s development has been supported by the UK Space Agency, the Technology Strategy Board and the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

Developing miniaturisation techniques and finding innovative ways of applying standard telecommunications and gaming technologies have been focus areas for this project, which is driven by a desire to make space missions more affordable says Clark. The MD has high hopes for uptake with a target to manufacture 100 satellites a year from around 2015.

Clyde Space currently turns over around £1.5m and is looking to double this within three years on the back of its innovations. Clark confidently states that it will lead the nano-satellite market.

The challenge in realising all of this opportunity is in communication and increasing visibility says Mr Maiden. Existing suppliers into the space sector agree. Sherborne Sensors, for example, has supplied advanced sensors to the space sector for 10 years and the work now accounts for around 10% of the company’s turnover.

Sherborne is looking to grow this contribution says Robin Butler, the company’s sales and marketing director. “There are many opportunities that align easily with our core competencies,” he explains. “We’re looking for more work supplying to communications satellites, space capable weapons platforms, ground based systems for space platform communications, space platforms testing and more.”

But finding that work is not always easy, even in a sector with an average annual growth rate of 7.5%. “It’s a narrow, vertical market,” says Mr Butler, “and the compartmentalised nature of the industry makes opportunities difficult to root out. It’s also hard to make yourself visible to others. Good marketing is essential in the space industry.”

NDI, with its strong experience in supporting SMEs knows however, that marketing and market research can be weak points for busy firms at the smaller and of the spectrum. Hoping to act as a bridge between SMEs and new business, it is in talks with the Sat Apps Catapult to take a space opportunities road show around the UK, spreading the message to SMEs on their doorsteps.

“Our focus will naturally be on the north of England,” says Maiden, “We are discussing ways in which we can work with the Satellite Applications Catapult to promote education about space sector opportunities, but also ways in which we can encourage companies further up the supply pyramid to come and clarify where the plug in points are in their supply chains.” One of the difficulties in doing this effectively is associated with the distinctly global nature of the space industry. “Only the US could really say it has a national sector,” asserts Maiden. “This makes it difficult both to locate supply chain potential and acts as a barrier to entry for firms who are daunted by the dedication of time, money and resource associated with establishing international business.”

Astrium UK builds around 5 geostationary satellites a year. Each at a cost of around $150m

Other potential barriers to entry into the space sector exist around niche standards and accreditations, though Mike Lawton, product development director at lithium ion battery manufacturer and space technology company, ABSL (see box), says that most defence and aerospace manufacturers would find themselves well on the way down the compliance road.

“An established aerospace supplier would no doubt have a recognised quality assurance system in place – you’ll almost certainly be ISO90001 accredited,” comments Mr Lawton. “That is suitable proof of a company’s ability to reliably hit quality standard in space. Where the sector varies is in its testing requirements. Suppliers must comply with the ECSS guidelines on product testing – but these are freely available from ESA’s website.”

Again, aerospace firms would likely be most the way there, according to Lawton. Space tests tend to be more aggressive versions of what is required in aerospace for vibration and thermal testing and monitoring, although tests for performance in a vacuum and under radiation are also involved.

Refreshingly though, it seems there is relatively little complaint or government bashing in the space sector around the rules and regulations which govern the commercial sector or the competitiveness of the UK manufacturing environment.

Access to funding from ESA is a problem for SMEs according to Craig Clark at space-tech manufacturer Clyde Space (see box). It’s a sticking point which he feels may be holding back a wave of space entrepreneurialism. But Lawton counters that there is an ESA programme for SME support called the Innovation Triangle Initiative which is designed to get more small companies flourishing across member nations.

Furthermore, with successful SME leaders like Mr Clark lobbying through the Innovation Growth Strategy, an initiative led by the sector trade body UK Space, the end may be nigh for the need to apply to the UK Space Agency for a licence for commercial satellites. The need to license science and education satellites was recently removed and this has made it significantly easier and less expensive to launch UK missions according to Clark. Such behind the scenes work to iron out the administrative creases for space sector companies should help smooth the way for new entrants to the market.

Engineering challenges andnew manufacturing processesABSL, a subsidiary of the $2bnUS company Enersys, employsaround 90 people in the UK,split between sites in Culham,Oxfordshire and Therso, Scotland.Its space business turns overaround £7m, and is 90% driven byits speciality, uniquely balanced,lithium ion battery products.