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SME Speaks: Smaller Companies Can Win in the Race to Space





Small to mid-sized manufacturers from all across the manufacturing enterprise are in a unique situation today—well-positioned to gain new business by working with public, private, and government partners to help meet tomorrow's space communications, surveillance, and reconnaissance needs. At the helm of these activities in the United States is NASA, now facing significant challenges:

  • An under-funded budget for the planned schedule through 2010.
  • Fulfilling the U.S. obligation to the International Space Station.
  • Addressing safety problems related to the space shuttle.
  • Responding to President Bush's proposal for human missions to the moon and, eventually, Mars.       

My employer, MEI Technologies Inc., has taken advantage of opportunities to help NASA address these challenges and more. With NASA prioritizing small business participation in their projects, large aerospace companies have more opportunities for small business to become part of their supply chains. Small businesses should take advantage of this opportunity. It will give you a chance to support objectives that are important to the nation and the world, and reap the benefits.

From better space suits to alternative energies, robotics to nanotechnology initiatives, the technological needs of today's experiments and tomorrow's explorations are demanding. They are also opening doors to smaller manufacturing companies. Tec-Masters Inc. (TMI; Huntsville, AL) is one such company that is involved in conceptual design engineering and development for International Space Station (ISS) experiments, including hardware design concepts, solid models, and development of flight hardware. TMI has integrated payloads into the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox (MSG) on board the ISS. As part of the design of these experiments, TMI manufactures experiment prototypes to validate the design, thus resulting in proven flight hardware that meets all requirements on schedule and within budget. Additionally, TMI is currently working on radiation-shielding technologies that are intended for use in the design of lunar and Martian habitation structures. This technology can be applied to the airline industry by providing protection to the airline crews operating at high altitudes that are exposed to harmful cosmic radiation. TMI is considered a small engineering company but is a valued resource to much larger companies and specifically NASA.

You can play an important role in the success of NASA and large aerospace and defense companies.

Many small manufacturers are positioning themselves to be invaluable participants in space exploration. Arcam AB (Mölndal, Sweden) a Swedish company, has developed an additive manufacturing technique using its electron beam melting technology. The process can fabricate a fully dense metal part using materials such as titanium (Ti-6Al-4V) and 17-4PH steel. Metal powder is melted layer by layer using the electron beam and the part is built in a vacuum. This environment would be advantageous on the moon or Mars for in-situ fabrication of parts. In the meantime, NASA is in the process of acquiring this machine to increase its manufacturing capabilities, and is investigating opportunities closer to home. Expansion in the near future to materials such as stainless steel 316, Inconel 718, and aluminum 6061 will further increase material selection, thus making Arcam look even more attractive. Currently, the company has approximately 20 employees. Because of its size, Arcam is able to respond to customer needs quicker and with less red tape.

Solidica Inc. (Ann Arbor, MI) is another small manufacturing company (approx. 10-20 employees) that is penetrating the aerospace industry. Solidica has developed a technology that allows fabrication of tooling and component parts. Solidica's ultrasonic consolidation (UC) technology uses sound to "weld" layers of metal foil to themselves in an additive process while an integrated three-axis CNC mill performs post-processing on the part. Materials include mostly aluminum, but copper is currently available and other materials are in development. A unique feature of this technology is the ability to embed sensors or other materials such as carbon fibers, ceramics, and other lightweight materials that add overall strength to the part. Solidica's process does not involve heat and makes embedding circuitry or other devices possible. In the beginning, the company concentrated on tooling fixtures or molds but, due to an increase in the demand for component parts, Solidica is improving its machine so it can fabricate more intricate geometries. The company's size allows it to react to customer demands in a timely manner.

As with many of the rapid prototyping technologies, geometries that cannot be produced using traditional manufacturing methods are now possible. The performance and cost improvements of the process over conventional manufacturing are expected to result in rapid acceptance in the government-based aerospace markets.

MEI is working with a number of primary contractors in support of space exploration. With Jacobs Sverdrup (Tullahoma, TN) we are supporting engineering and science at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. As a team, we join other subcontractors to work, specifically, on products and services for the International Space Station, Space Shuttle, and other spaceflight programs. MEI has also teamed with Teledyne Brown Engineering (Huntsville, AL) the primary contractor for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, AL) on a project that supports NASA's vision for space exploration. The primary task involves investigating and developing in-situ fabrication and repair technologies for use on the surfaces of the moon and Mars. Opportunities to support other customers within NASA have resulted in additional tasks such as increasing the efficiency and durability of life support systems for use on the Space Station, the Space Shuttle, and future exploration vehicles, as well as testing alternative processes capable of improving the fabrication of combustion chamber liners for various spacecraft engines.

The need for advanced manufacturing grows continuously. With NASA working to put human beings back on the moon by 2015 and to initiate human missions to Mars as early as 2025, the future of space exploration is exciting.

Currently, NASA's sole means of launching humans into space is the Space Shuttle, which is facing significant engineering challenges. The agency hopes to overcome some of the shuttle's launch and re-entry challenges in the next generation of space exploration with the development of a crew exploration vehicle (CEV). Since July, two contractor teams—one led by Lockheed Martin and the other by a Northrop Grumman/Boeing partnership—have been working to develop a CEV for human missions into deep space. NASA plans to award a Phase 2 contract—to design and build the CEV—to a single contractor team in spring 2006. It is scheduled for an unmanned test flight in 2008.

In the 36 years since mankind landed on the moon, the technologies developed in response to space exploration needs have been expanded to serve other industries. Global Positioning Systems now used in highend cars and boats are one of many commercial examples. Other examples include:

  • Automatic blood pressure measuring devices available in virtually every corner pharmacy, first used in 1961 on Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
  • Scratch-resistant lenses for eyeglasses.
  • Braces made from nitinol, an alloy with the ability to spring back into shape from tight contortion—used in satellite manufacture.
  • Implantable insulin pumps that keep diabetes under control (adopted from the mechanical robot arm on the first Mars Voyager probe).
  • Velcro, used to attach insulation on spacecraft.       

Today, major aerospace companies work together in partnerships where they serve as primary contractors who integrate their supply chains and demand the best from suppliers. Smaller to mid-size companies involved in emerging technologies can benefit by working with these major aerospace/aeronautics integrators to help them overcome the cost issues, safety requirements, and other challenges of space exploration. They are sought after for their knowledge, experience and new ideas, but also have specific strengths that bigger companies do not—primarily responsiveness, speed, agility, and the ability to customize.

If you are interested in getting involved in this market, getting to know NASA's Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs—as well as the capability needs of top integrators—will be key. Your innovative ideas and technologies can open doors. I have found that these large companies will listen to you if you can improve their existing manufacturing processes or offer a means to a quicker and more cost-efficient process. Be sure to emphasize price, performance, quality, and delivery whenever you can. After all, while it may be out of this world, manufacturing for space is still manufacturing.


This article was first published in the December 2005 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 12/1/2005

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