Manufacturers Reflect on Supply Chain Issues and the Software-Defined Future
April 1, 2022
After emerging from pandemic-induced supply chain crises, satellite manufacturers are turning to software-defined satellites to open the possibility of new business models and glean more data about performance, the CEOs of several manufacturers said during SATELLITE 2022.
“Every supplier had different issues and different challenges that they were trying to overcome,” said Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s Commercial Civil Space Division. “We tried to work with them individually to determine how best to support them.”
In the early days of the pandemic, for instance, some could not source PPE for their employees, and Lockheed helped them. Others needed more assistance: “In some cases that was funding to keep them solvent, so we were advancing them several million dollars to try to keep some of them solvent that were having issues,” Callahan told the panel, “Scaling Up Satellite Manufacturing Capabilities,” on March 22.
There were distinctive phases to the supply chain crisis, according to Dirk Wallinger, CEO of York Space Systems. “There was an initial phase where it was everyone for themselves. The reality is that you're trying to buy products for yourself from competitors. Obviously some lessons were learned from that,” he said.
In phase two, there was a more cooperative approach, Wallinger said, at least among U.S. military and government suppliers. “We have the U.S. government as a customer. Our competitors have the U.S. government as a customer. So, what we ended up doing [in phase two] was a little bit of borrow/payback. There were actually some instances where we worked, even with competitors, or we would share some materials that they needed to keep going and they would do the same for us and return that favor.”
Currently, he added, the focus is on sourcing as much of the supply chain as possible within the U.S. “Now we're focused on trying to build that U.S. supply chain up. The supply chain became very global before [the pandemic], which worked great at the time, but in an everyone for themselves environment, that turned out to be more difficult.”
Turning to the issue of software-defined satellites, Ryan Reid, president of Boeing Commercial Satellite Systems International, pointed out that there is no standard definition of the term in the industry. “It's interesting that those words mean so many things to different people. Everyone has a software-defined thing and everything is different,” he joked.
For Boeing, he said, the threshold question is — “Can [a software-defined satellite] be operated in the way that a software-defined network is operated? Can it be seamlessly integrated with that network, or does it have to be managed, like a separate bespoke hardware asset?”
Under this definition, he added, software-defined satellites are the key to ubiquitous connectivity, and integrated infrastructure.
Hervé Derrey, CEO of Thales Alenia Space, said software-defined satellites give customers the ability to make decisions about configuration much later on in the procurement process.
Software-defined satellites can also be updated while in orbit, which opens a lot of possibilities for new business models, pointed out Wallinger, and allows customers to keep up with the tech refresh cycle.
“Over that time, there's significant technology advancements that have been made in that amount of time. So the consumer is going to want to refresh that,” he said. “Service stations for cars were very much a thing when people kept their cars for 20 or 30 years. They don't do that anymore. They lease, they return them, they get the next model. I see that as the future for our industry.”
Software-defined satellites also allow manufacturers more visibility into their products’ operations, Callahan pointed out. “We've got a number of opportunities where we're actually pulling data off of our satellites [and using artificial intelligence and machine learning] to understand their life beyond how much fuel they have left. We can look at how we can reprogram that application for customers in the future, and really understand when that satellite might fail, or what components are likely to fail.” VS