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Industry 4.0 is revolutionising the space sector by transitioning to SpaceFactory 4.0

Often referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0 encapsulates the current trend of increased automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. It includes aspects such as the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, cognitive computing and ‘cyber’ issues.

 

There has been a host of innovations in recent years, including additive manufacturing, augmented and virtual reality, connected objects, and the introduction of robots and cobots (collaborative robots, working with humans). Because of the well-know advantages of cobots, they’re spreading like wildfire: according to Market Data Forecast, for example, the global market for these devices is set to grow from $981 million in 2019 to $7.161 billion in 2025 – giving a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over 40%.

 

Up to a few short years ago, space was synonymous with government spending: the high costs and risks involved made the sector generally inaccessible to private players. Today, major technology advances and a new entrepreneurial spirit are rapidly shaping a new space economy. We are seeing the emergence of private companies that discern unrivaled commercial opportunities in space exploration and exploitation thanks to disruptive technologies and the data revolution.

 

Despite the momentum of NewSpace alongside other rapid changes in the space industry, some market segments are facing major challenges. Currently, most manufacturing processes in the space industry are time-consuming and costly. Moreover, they are based on manufacturing principles that are mostly unsuitable either for efficient single-unit production or serial production in particular.

 

Step by step, however, this rather conservative and one-of-a-kind agency-focused business is transforming into a commercial market. Many new companies with innovative products and services are entering the global space industry and associated markets. The number and variety of satellites of all sizes – from nanosatellites to large-scale or monolithic satellites – is increasing. However, the transition of the industry from single-item production to mass production faces several challenges.

 

Space Economy has been  classified into upstream and downstream segments. The upstream segment covers activities related to sending spacecraft and satellites into space, including the manufacturing of launch vehicles or satellites (Space Manufacturing), while the downstream segment covers activities utilising space data to offer products or services (Space Applications) as well as ground segment operations (Space Operations).

 

Industry 4.0 refers to the next big industrial revolution, making use of digital technologies in manufacturing supply chains to enhance performance and productivity. It is the integration of digital and physical technologies, and the operation of digital technologies together (in concert). This has the potential to generate new business forms, increase speed to market, integrate and strengthen supply chains, production of customised products and generate significant productivity gains.

 

For example, an increase in volumes in the manufacture of satellites or launch vehicles and a decrease in the time-to-space, supported by Industry 4.0 technologies, could form the basis of meeting an increased demand for space data or other services, thus opening up a range of new space applications. Similarly, increased provision of space data may foster an increased demand for end-user equipment such as flat-panel antennas. Conversely, cheaper end-user equipment may foster an increased demand for space data or other services, and thus lead to further adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies

 

Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 refers to the next big industrial revolution, making use of digital technologies in manufacturing supply chains to enhance performance and productivity.

 

Industry 4.0 draws on the latest innovations from a number of fields, including advances in robotics. The robotics sector is currently dominated by industrial robots, which tend to perform a limited range of tasks that may be dangerous, repetitive or physically difficult when carried out by humans. Another key component of Industry 4.0 is automation, allowing tasks normally carried out by humans to be carried out automatically by machines. Industry 4.0 adds a further layer, combining robotics with innovative digital technologies such as
artificial intelligence and (big) data analytics. This combination of robotics, digital technology, and automation, allows the creation of autonomous robots, or autonomous systems, which are able to not only perform pre-defined tasks repeatedly, but to also take their environment into account and learn from, respond to, and adapt to certain events.

 

Collaborative robots (Cobots) are another example of how combining robotics with digital technologies can improve manufacturing operations and processes. As opposed to autonomous robots, which perform tasks independently, cobots are robots designed to work in collaboration with humans. Moreover, the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) allows the factory of the future to be ever more connected. This increased connectivity allows for a closer integration of machines, robots, factory equipment, and a company’s IT systems, as well as closer supply chain and customer integration.

 

Smart Manufacturing is an overall concept used to describe manufacturing processes utilising digitalisation technologies such as advanced robotics, big data analytics, or the Industrial Internet of Things with the aim of improving manufacturing processes and productivity.
Smart manufacturing is also often associated with more flexibility in the production process, allowing manufacturers to respond more quickly to changing demands.

 

Industry 4.0 opportunities for the Space Manufacturing sector

Digitalisation technologies provide significant opportunities for the Space Manufacturing sector to meet future challenges such as the development of mega-constellations which require faster production timescales, lower costs and high volumes, but do not necessarily need the high lifetime and full failure proofing of traditional satellites.

 

The challenge identified by industry experts is in reducing the manufacturing and launch costs enough to make this move from a low volume, high lifetime product to a product with a shorter lifetime produced at much lower production costs, but at higher frequencies attractive,
and reduce the time from initial design to space launch.

 

As other manufacturing industries have shown, automation of simple or repetitive tasks could reduce development times and therefore lead to faster product development, reducing time-tomarket and increasing productivity. Reduced development times in turn lead to cost  reductions and a more efficient manufacturing process overall. Automating simple or repetitive tasks of the manufacturing process could also free up staff to perform more skilled tasks, further reducing development costs. Moreover, industry experts also pointed to potential increases in the accuracy with which repeated tasks are performed.

 

Additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing (3D printing) could also be utilised to quickly and accurately manufacture bespoke components, reducing the time from initial product design to finished product. Using additive manufacturing techniques for prototyping has the potential to significantly reduce prototyping time compared to other methods, with time savings ranging between 43% and 75% in the aerospace sector, thereby reducing time-to-market.

 

Digital twins

Industry experts also pointed to digital twins, digital replica of the physical product or production process, as a way to optimise production and reduce lead times. On the one hand digital twins of the product could be used to analyse and qualify the product in a range of different scenarios prior and during manufacturing, allowing immediate feedback into the production process, thereby optimising production and reducing the need for multiple prototypes.

On the other hand, digital twins of the factory could also be used to validate the whole manufacturing process and identify areas for improvements. In this way digital twins could help integrate product testing throughout the product development and manufacturing process, helping manufacturers get products right the first time round and reducing time spent on validating the final product.

 

Augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) could also be utilised to visualise data more easily and intuitively and support workers in real time. In its space business, Airbus also already uses virtual reality to help its engineers work on artificial 3D objects for design purposes140. Virtual or augmented reality technologies could also be used to train staff, or to transfer knowledge from experienced staff to less experienced employees.

 

RFID tags

Tracking technology such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, in combination with the Industrial Internet of Things, could help monitor and improve the usage of equipment and facilities and increase traceability.

 

Automated qualification

Testing and qualifying each satellite or spacecraft individually is both time consuming and costly. Digitalisation technologies could help to reduce cost and increase time efficiency. One particular way in which digitalisation technologies could help is automated qualification.
Advanced analytics technologies such as machine learning could be used throughout the manufacturing process to detect and reduce non-conformities and concessions.

In addition, automated qualification systems could be designed to learn from past mistakes, thereby increasing accuracy and reducing build failures. While this would likely not eliminate the need for manual testing completely, digitalisation technologies could support the quality assurance process and help reduce the time spent on extensive testing of satellites and their components.

 

Virtual testing

In the medium to long term moving from or complementing physical testing with virtual testing environments could lead to efficiency gains and cost reductions. For example, simulations could be used to assess critical component’s durability in extreme space environments without leaving the factory floor.

Virtual testing environments could also provide increased flexibility to test a wide range of different scenarios, which can be modified to adapt to specific demands. Importantly, virtual testing could be integrated throughout the manufacturing process, allowing fine-tuning of product designs early on in the manufacturing process, and thereby reducing the overall time to market.

 

Standardisation and COTS

A shift towards higher volumes in the sector could encourage a move towards standardisation. This could allow increased use of COTS over custom components, thereby reducing overall cost and shortening development cycles. Higher standardisation in turn presents opportunities for the use of digitalisation technologies such as higher automation of the production process or the integration of co-bots.

 

The space environment itself also presents special challenges for the use of COTS (e.g. space radiation, and the difficulty of repairing or replacing components in-orbit), which users of COTS in other sectors do not face. Given these challenges, it is of vital importance that COTS are properly qualified for the specific application in order to avoid introducing unnecessary risk.

 

With higher standardisation industry experts also saw opportunities for more flexible platforms, which are smaller and cheaper, have shorter lead times, and include more digital configuration with standard interfaces. Highly flexible platforms could allow the application of standardised products to different applications by reconfiguring products to specific customer needs.

 

Integrated supply chain

Another area where digitalisation technologies could address existing challenges is by connecting companies across the supply chain, thus creating a more integrated supply chain and improving collaboration, flexibility and visibility along the supply chain.

 

Automated feedback

For example, automated feedback mechanisms could be used to keep other companies along the supply chain updated about manufacturing progress and quality assurance tests performed. Such mechanisms could also be used to inform supply chain members when a non-conformity was detected, thereby reducing duplicate testing.

 

Real-time monitoring

Tracking technologies such as Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags could also be used to allow real-time monitoring of parts or components in real time. In this way a more integrated supply chain could help increase traceability of both components and requirements along the supply chain. In the long term a more integrated supply chain, combined with increased traceability of components, was seen as an opportunity towards the adoption of just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, yielding further efficiency gains and cost reductions.

 

Market diversity

Digitalisation technologies were also identified to create potential opportunities for new companies, thereby increasing competitiveness in the Space Manufacturing sector, and leading to a larger and more diverse market sector.

 

Increased collaboration

Increased collaboration was also seen as a potential opportunity for early adopters of Industry 4.0 technologies to share information on the challenges faced in the uptake of these technologies with smaller suppliers such as SMEs to facilitate adoption along the supply chain and thus increase the benefits to the sector overall.

 

Indutry 4.0 implementations in Space

OneWeb is on a mission to provide affordable internet access for everyone. Currently, over 50% of the world has no access to reliable high-speed connectivity, with developing countries and remote areas particularly affected141. OneWeb’s longer term goal is to fully bridge this gap, and make internet access available to everyone, by 2027. To help achieve this goal, OneWeb has teamed up with Airbus and created a joint venture – OneWeb Satellites – to manufacture low-cost, high-performance satellites at high volumes. OneWeb Satellites will initially produce 900 satellites (each weighing less than 150 kilograms), forming part of a large constellation of satellites orbiting around the globe.

 

In contrast to traditional satellite manufacturing, OneWeb Satellites’ manufacturing process is completely paperless. All planning takes place electronically, with electronic plans interlinked with smart tooling. Instructions are sent directly to tools, with torque values being supplied to machines automatically by a central software and values being recorded in an automated way. Cameras are used to compare assembled
components to models of correct assemblies, allowing automated visual inspection of components to ensure consistent, repeatable quality. 3D scanners are used to automatically check the geometry and alignment of critical areas.

This paperless manufacturing process also allows OneWeb Satellites to automatically collect large sets of data throughout their manufacturing process. Using machine learning and predictive algorithms, this will allow OneWeb Satellites to not only deal with bottlenecks in a reactive manner, but also to proactively predict production hold-ups and detect faults early on. As more satellites are produced, and more data is collected, the tools will automatically learn, allowing more and more accurate predictions over time. Ultimately, the aim is to use big data analytics not only in the manufacturing process, but throughout the supply chain, as well as to monitor the
satellites on orbit in space.

 

Space Manufacturing challenges and Industry 4.0

Often low volumes, relative to other sectors, in traditional space manufacturing. High manufacturing costs and low volumes present key challenges in the product development stage. In particular, industry experts identified challenges around the long time-to-market of space
products, as well as around the especially challenging space environment requiring special and expensive production components and limiting possible economies of scale.

 

Resistance to new technologies / materials, for some parts of the sector. Acceptance of new materials and technologies within the supply chain was also seen as a challenge for traditional space manufacturing. In particular, a resistance to and a lack of availability of
commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) parts was identified.  Acceptance of new processes was also seen as a challenge for the quality assurance stage, where questions around the acceptance of batch testing of satellites and their parts, as opposed to an extensive quality assurance process for each satellite, were raised.

 

Conservative approach to risk, for some parts of the sector Bespoke nature of space manufacturing. The conservative approach to risk prevalent within some parts of the sector also presents a challenge to lowering costs and increasing volumes. However, low volumes mean that pay-offs of investment in automation and standardisation would be slower to accrue, and raises challenges around the creation of economies of scale. In addition, there was a concern among industry experts that access to finance and capital investments is
challenging, creating cost barriers towards the adoption of digitalisation technologies.

 

High development costs of satellites, leading to high upfront costs to experiment with new technologies.  Finally, there was a worry that the long lifetime of space products would make obsolesce a challenge as technology keeps advancing rapidly. This was seen as a particular problem when developing new technologies from scratch, which can take a long time. Industry experts therefore saw the challenge around introducing new technologies into current systems and processes and retrofitting older technologies.

 

There was also a view that existing technology would need to be improved to meet the challenging space standards before it could be widely adopted within the sector. For example, COTS would need to incorporate technologies such as radiation shielding to be able to withstand the demanding space environment by incorporating. This makes the specification and production of COTS in Space Manufacturing particularly challenging.

 

The creation of standards for new space applications, which are less onerous than current quality assurance practice, but still ensure traceability were also mentioned as a challenge for the sector. Traceability of requirements as well as other data such as measurements was also seen as a challenge for the quality assurance process as well as along the supply chain.

 

Recommendations

The report recommended many actions. In order to overcome the challenges surrounding COTS within the space sector, experts saw the
need for involvement of, and collaboration among, all relevant actors, including industry leaders as well as SMEs, national agencies, and government to overcome this challenge.  Reducing the qualification costs of COTS components, for example by including more parts
when testing is performed or by finding other ways to streamline the process. Providing additional investment to qualify COTS components and demonstrate suitability of particular components for space.

 

Experts also suggested taking inspiration from the defence sector, where COTS are already in use, as well as other manufacturing industries such as automotive or aerospace, in order to develop cost effective manufacturing processes which can then be optimised to meet the specific challenges posed by the space environment and to derive best practice.

 

Experts also saw the further development of effective virtualisation tools for the virtualisation of manufacturing integration and testing as an important step. While virtualisation tools are used in Space Manufacturing, experts suggested that virtual testing environments and models need to be able to better replicate the real-world space environment to allow a more realistic testing environment delivering improved results

 

In the longer term, experts painted a vision of the use of digital twins of the whole manufacturing process throughout the Space Manufacturing supply chain. Achieving this vision would require involvement of the whole supply chain, including primes and SME’s alike, as well as common tools and standards.

 

Experts saw a collaborative ecosystem encompassing the whole supply chain, from primes to small and innovative start-ups or SMEs, as an important step to the advancement of the sector. In particular experts suggested that digital information from the operations of all parties should be collated so that good patterns and best practice can be identified, delivering shared benefits to all.

 

Experts suggested the framing of a space strategy around the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies as essential to boost uptake. In the medium term this space strategy will enable a collaborative environment for research, and together with the change in public perceptions, enable easier access to hardware and Industry 4.0 manufacturing facilities. Experts also saw a need for funding/investment events to be held to facilitate investment in Industry 4.0 technologies as well as an active involvement and encouragement from regulatory bodies.

 

Taken together, these actions would encourage continuous improvement of manufacturing plants, creating, over the next decade, a more competitive Space Manufacturing environment. However, achieving this vision requires engagement from all stakeholders, including government and regulatory bodies, Space Manufacturing companies, including SMEs as well as big companies, and also investors in order to overcome a number of barriers, identified by experts: Facilitating investment in Industry 4.0 technologies; Developing the right skills such as data engineers, scientists and developers; Creating the right regulatory environment; Facilitating collaboration between large established companies and SMEs; and Adopting the right mindset.

 

Reducing the time to space was seen as a crucial step for the space sector in order to implement the opportunities and benefits identified by experts. In particular, checks prior to space launches were seen as prohibitively lengthy and administratively burdensome. While, it is crucial to note the importance of these checks in order to mitigate the risks of failure, finding ways to streamline and standardise inspection processes without increasing risk will be an important challenge for the sector.

Lengthy insurance processes as well as insurance that does not meet the needs of new technologies such as large-constellations was also identified as a barrier to reducing time to space by experts.

 

 

 

References and Resources also include:

https://londoneconomics.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/LE-Industry-4.0-and-the-Future-of-UK-Space-Manufacturing-Final-Report.pdf

 

 

About Rajesh Uppal

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