Never Offline: Building Reliable Satellite Receivers

by Mitchell Gebheim / March 25, 2021

The demand for faster connectivity and far-reaching access moves satellite communications (SATCOM) closer to our daily lives. From 5G backhaul to rural broadband-speed internet access, satellite receivers need to go more places and fit in more environments than ever before.

SATCOM equipment developers need to meet environmental requirements for receivers in vastly different situations. Communication base stations are on commercial airliners, cellular towers, and versions with streamlined form factors installed in urban areas. Cost remains a critical factor for success, particularly in deployments that require multiple receivers.

Developers are leveraging established strategies to produce reliable ground terminals that meet all size, form factor, and cost requirements. They're also adopting design simplification ideas first developed in defense applications and other industries, utilizing these manufacturing principles to achieve their targets.

Our Co-Workers, the Robots

Automation has been part of manufacturing for decades. Whether or not to automate a task was influenced by the number of units produced to amortize the cost of developing the automation. However, repeatability, advanced technology, and precision can be other important justifications for automation.

As frequencies increase and wavelengths decrease, margins of error in the placement of components also shrink. This is even more accurate for miniaturized form factors. Robots can achieve placement precision and exact repeatability in component alignment, liquid dispensing, or torque tightening that humans simply can't. At the same time, tasks such as tuning may require a skilled technician. For this reason, some processes may be fully automated, while others may leverage collaborative robots (cobots) that work alongside humans. The key is to select the right type of automation to meet precision, repeatability, and cost goals.

Build-to-Print vs. Build-to-Perform

Building products to exactly match the customer's design is the foundation of the electronics manufacturing services industry. Those who design and build RF products know that build-to-print is necessary but not sufficient; RF anomalies such as de-tuning or cavity resonance issues can prevent even a product built perfectly to spec from functioning.

Instead, RF products such as satellite receivers need to be built-to-perform. That means developing manufacturing processes that balance the tolerances of various components and don't inadvertently expose sensitive components to environmental conditions such as heat or moisture in later steps. Test development needs to be conscious of the ordering of steps as well to avoid de-tuning RF components. Experience building RF products in the product's frequency band is essential to successfully building for RF performance.

Investing in Traceability and Test

Satellite Communications is a competitive industry, and keeping production costs down is key to success. But developing the cheapest process isn't the answer; scrap and rework can be some of the biggest cost drivers, and field failures are not only expensive to address but can devalue your brand. High-yield production should be the goal when considering manufacturing costs. A combination of excellent manufacturing processes, components, product traceability, and robust testing processes is the best way to achieve that goal.

Traceability is gaining traction across manufacturing. Industry 4.0 is the next stage in the evolution of collecting and using data in the manufacturing process, but in regulated industries like medical devices and aerospace, automated tracking of components isn't new. Component traceability goes from incoming inspection and anti-counterfeit verification through assembly, any potential rework, and all the way to the field. Not only does this allow for efficient responses to recalls or other problems, but it also creates an underlying pool of data that reveals ways to improve future designs and processes.

RF test processes for satellite receivers must cover circuit function, RF function, and the ability to withstand environmental risks like weather and vibration. Integrating test into the manufacturing process helps identify problems early before additional steps are performed.

The design of the test solution is also critical. It is not sufficient to know if a product passes or fails; the test system must also provide diagnostic information to know what fails so it can be repaired. As the frequencies and communication bands increase, the diagnostic information and feedback to test and repair technicians need to be more detailed and focused on avoiding mass DNF product bone piles. As the long-haul communications method of choice for any location not connected to fiber backhaul, satellite receivers for broadband access can be found on commercial aircraft, offshore oil platforms, and in the backpacks of soldiers. This variety means a wide range of environmental stress screening (ESS), from saltwater exposure to thermal or vibration testing, may apply.

Design for Success

Everything I've mentioned is about manufacturing satellite receivers. But arriving at a high-performance receiver starts in the design phase. System engineers have always appreciated simplicity; the fewer potential points of failure, the better. The basis of standard reliability analysis, like mean time between failure (MTBF), looks specifically at the number of components and their connections; fewer is better. Simple designs featuring fewer components carry less supply chain risk. The lead time of a single component may delay production, and in many cases, reducing the number of components can give more flexibility to the form factor. Lean form factors can be important for receivers in places like the top of a commercial airliner or an apartment window.

In the past, manufacturing limitations were one of the biggest hurdles to the simplification of designs. Electronic and RF functions may require different materials, and some components may require surface mount technology (SMT) assembly while other leverage microelectronics. Advances in manufacturing mixed-material circuit boards and components and hybrid SMT/micro-e assemblies open up new design simplification and miniaturization options for satellite receivers.

Benchmark is a Leader in Satellite communications

Benchmark has been manufacturing satellite receivers for industry leaders in defense and communications for more than two decades. We make more than a dozen products found everywhere from the battlefield to the sky and have worked in every satellite frequency band. Our customers appreciate that we have deep experience building and testing these systems. Our RF system engineers help troubleshoot if problems arise or work with customers to make their next generation of products smaller, more reliable, or easier to manufacture. As advances in satellite systems bring broadband internet connectivity everywhere, Benchmark will continue to manufacture receivers you can count on never to be offline.

Manufacturing Defense RF/Microwave & mmWave Communications

about the author

Mitchell Gebheim

Mitchell Gebheim is a Technical Business Development Director for the advanced computing and next-gen communications sectors serving as a technical leader for the business development team. In his 25 years with Benchmark, Mitchell has served as Product Development Engineering Manager, Electrical Engineering Manager, Project Manager, and Project Engineer. Mitchell holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the Milwaukee School of Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin. Originally from Milwaukee, Mitchell currently resides in Houlton, Wisconsin just east of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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