Fishing line. Measuring tape. And there aren’t many problems that can’t be solved with a tiny spring. But Australia’s embryonic satellite-construction industry has had to get innovative in overcoming pandemic supply chain problems.
Inovor Technologies operations manager Benjamin Adams says the situation hasn’t quite got to the level of scrabbling through salvage yards. Not quite…
“COVID has slowed us down a bit, but that’s life,” he says. “I’m really happy [with] how well we’ve survived it.”
Inovor is a rapid-reaction, high-reliability satellite constructor. The Adelaide-based manufacturer received a $750,000 grant from Canberra’s Moon to Mars Supply Chain Capability program.
Whats in the works?
It’s already got five ambitious CubeSat projects on the assembly line, with an open architecture small satellite frame in the works.
CSIROSat-1 is a CubeSat designed to carry a hyperspectral imager for climate-science purposes.
SpIRIT will deploy an X-ray detector for astronomical observation.
SA Space Services is about earth observation and connectivity.
Buccaneer will carry high-frequency antennae for calibrating the Australian Defence Force’s Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) over-the-horizon radar system.
And Hyperion is a low-orbit optical telescope for space-domain awareness.
Inovor builds most of the subsystem componentry itself, instead of using ‘off the shelf’ products.
“We don’t understand those,” says Adams. “We can’t be certain of their performance. But if we build it ourselves, we know exactly what is needed and what it can do. It means we can build smaller and lighter, but also reliably. And our understanding means we can be certain they’ll work with customer payloads.”
Yes, fishing wire features prominently – if temporarily. It’s a strong but lightweight solution to holding solar panels in place during launch. It’s also not a new idea, though others are.
“What COVID’s definitely done for me, and I think for government more broadly, is show up the weaknesses in our supply chains,” says Adams. “The challenges we’ve had of trying to get printed circuit boards and components for those boards have been extreme.”
One circuit board alone has around 200 components on it. “If you can’t get just one, the whole thing’s useless until that one component arrives”.
Adams says being a small fish in a global multinational arena doesn’t help. “Toilet-paper-style panic stockpiling has been a problem on a commercial scale.”
Satellite supply chain problems requires creative solutions
But a bit of creative thinking has kept the production line going – and growing.
“It’s really made us think of other ways to get a job done,” says Adams. “The electrical engineers need to be much more mindful of the parts they have been picking.”
They have also needed creative ways to switch cargoes out of stranded ships and on to roundabout routes to Australia, as well as scrabbling through dark corners in government, defence and customers’ cupboards to find forgotten spares.
“Everyone’s trying to help each other out in these tough times,” says Adams.
None of the impediments have stopped the start-up from growing, though. This has added extra 30 jobs in the past year alone, bringing the total number of people working out of Adelaide’s Lot 14 space start-up precinct to 100.
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