Boeing Co. is taking steps to build satellites more quickly through new production practices that will rely more on 3D 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 Wall Street Journal reports.
The company’s proposed changes, spelled out in an interview by Paul Rusnock, who leads Boeing’s satellite business, have already 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,” 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,” 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.
The benefits of the new process, according to 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costs for operators while provide them greater opportunities to launch upgraded technology before hardware becomes outdated in orbit.
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.
Ultimately, 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.
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