Manufacturers Seek Deeper Relationships With Suppliers to Avert Supply Chain Crises

The satellite industry has been hit hard by a succession of global supply chain crises during the pandemic — including the worldwide microchip shortage. But a panel of executives from satellite manufacturers told a session Wednesday at the SATELLITE 2021 conference that the experience had helped them re-imagine the way they work with their suppliers to emerge stronger and smarter.

“We got greater sensitivity for the multiple layers below the supply chain that we normally see,” said Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager for Tactical Space Systems at Northrop Grumman. He said there were critical dependencies in the industry supply chain that only became visible when they broke down — like the shortage of truck drivers to haul hardware or hazardous substances like liquid oxygen.

“There's a sensitivity to that now that we can work with our suppliers in more of a partnership to figure out where those roadblocks are, and how we can work together to try to knock them down,” he said.

DeMauro argued that the pandemic and the accompanying supply chain crises — most notoriously the global microchip shortage — forced satellite manufacturers to think in a more granular fashion about how their dependencies impact their ability to meet customer deadlines and other requirements.

It also meant manufacturers had to learn to be more flexible and adaptive. “As we talked about the shortage of hardware, or how any one particular supplier might be having a bigger issue with COVID than others, we’ve had to figure out how our products will be able to accommodate this same type of component from different suppliers,” DeMauro said.

He added: “It’s driving us to think a little bit smaller. Not in terms of product or business, but in terms of strategizing, maybe at a lower level, about how to be flexible and able to accommodate those changes.”

Relationships and partnerships with suppliers are absolutely critical, explained Jean Marc Nasr, executive vice president and head of Space Systems at Airbus, especially given the relative size of the industry. “Space is a kind of dwarf when it comes to manufacturing, compared to automobiles. The value of our market is tiny.”

Airbus is in the position of being both a component manufacturer and a systems integrator — both the supplier and the prime at the same time, Nasr observed. But the pandemic supply chain disruptions forced the company to think more strategically about how it directs resources.

“We have developed this make-or-buy approach to select what is key for us,” Nasr explained, choosing to keep in-house the manufacturing for a limited number of vital components. “For example, the on-board computer is absolutely key, so we keep that in house.” And Airbus supplies its own optical data links, which use lasers to communicate between satellites on orbit, because they are absolutely critical for the next generation of satellites, Nasr said.

Ryan Reid, president of Boeing Commercial Satellite Systems International, agreed that the kind of relationship needed with a supplier depends on the components they supply. Unique components at the heart of a system require a closer relationship.

“There are things that are maybe more developmental in nature, where it requires a deeper partnership, and maybe even integrating the tool sets, using common design tool sets as a means of enabling that. Then there are situations that may be more commoditized that don't require that same level of integration. It really is situation dependent,” he said.

The multi-orbit revolution and the accompanying growth of huge Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations also forced changes in the way Airbus and other manufacturers deal with their suppliers and the whole manufacturing process, Nasr added. Manufacturing dozens or even hundreds or thousands of satellites on a production line is a far cry from the singular creations of traditional satellites, each one a unique and exquisite product.

“When you do constellations, the relationship with suppliers is especially important, because you have to have stable supply over a long period of time with quality standards,” Nasr said. The relationship needed to be longer term, more equal, more adult, as opposed to a parent-child type of relationship that can characterize one-off manufacturing. VS

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