Space Metal: Precision Machining's Biggest Challenge

by Patrick Kealey / August 20, 2020

Humanity's pursuit of the stars has evolved. After putting a man on the moon or discovering new worlds, space technology has come back home and is now critical to daily activity on Earth. New applications in high-speed communications, defense systems, and climate tracking drive demand for space systems, but building for zero gravity, radiation, and extreme temperatures are as challenging as ever. When it comes to metal components for systems destined to leave the Earth's atmosphere, it's not as simple as going down to the local hardware store. Space metal might sound like an amazing new music genre developed by very cool astronauts, but it's actually an exceptionally challenging area of manufacturing for space. Metal components for space need to be light, durable and meet precise tolerances. Benchmark Precision Technologies (PT) understands what it takes to build metal components and mechanical systems for spacecraft and satellites.

No Margin for Error

The critical expertise our Precision Technologies offering brings to the table is our ability to meet the stringent specifications and extremely tight tolerances with various metal materials used in space systems such as titanium, aluminum, and stainless steel. Our capabilities far exceed an average machine shop; we deliver critical tolerance metal fabrication and assembly for components, sub-assemblies, and full module assemblies. We're a rare partner that can not only design and engineer a prototype, but we can also transition it to the New Product Introduction (NPI) process utilizing design-for-manufacturing techniques to lower costs and lead times.

Our broad capabilities serve the space industry well because there's no margin for error in designing and manufacturing spacecraft and satellite components and systems. Components and subassemblies need to be within very tight tolerances to ensure reliability. Unlike other highly regulated industries like aerospace and defense, there is little opportunity for MRO (maintenance, repair, and overhaul) activities. Reliability and perfection is the standard in the space industry. There's no way to pull a spacecraft over for maintenance.

Built to Withstand Harsh Environments

Our space development experience ranges from building components for rocket engines, helping customers select the right materials to withstand the harsh environments of space, solving manufacturability challenges, and sourcing suppliers. Our favorite engagements start with a customer bringing us a unique part that presents a significant challenge, whether it's a design they need but don't know how to build or a set of extreme specifications that require manufacturing expertise. That's when our engineers work with the customer to develop a design, manufacturing process, and supply chain that makes the component they need a reality. It's even more exciting when we know our products will travel to outer space!

One of the challenging aspects of working in the space industry is not always knowing what type of spacecraft will ultimately use the component or subsystem due to security restrictions, which means our team must have extreme flexibility and close communication with the customer. At Benchmark Precision Technologies, our space application knowledge allows us to identify which specifications are fixed and which might be more flexible in most instances. Our underlying understanding of the complex challenges of space enables us to provide high-quality solutions without access to sensitive application details.

A Space-Certified Partner

Another critical aspect of manufacturing tight tolerance components and systems for space is having the correct certifications, technician training, and experienced manufacturing to specific space standards. We have built out the necessary suite of certifications to meet our customers' needs and requirements, including ISO Class 3 cleanrooms, AS9100 certifications, Nadcap Accreditation for Nonconventional Machining in Tempe, AZ, and more.

Becoming a certified provider for space metal products is difficult, and the lack of trusted industry partners constrains the supply chain. Often in more traditional space product development, specific components or suppliers are certified early in the development process. Our engineering and supply chain teams understand these barriers and are flexible enough to work efficiently with our customer's other suppliers or any requested supplier.

We've invested a great deal in developing and acquiring talent with space product experience. Many of these individuals have worked for or with some of the largest companies in the space industry. They have deep expertise and knowledge of both the technical challenges and bureaucratic aspects of space product certifications. In some circumstances, we also bring our partners into the mix. Using our certified suppliers through our industry-leading supply chain team allows us to meet critical timelines and deliver components and systems cost-effectively.

Uniquely, Benchmark Precision Technologies is part of the broader Benchmark network of engineering, microelectronics, SMT assembly, system integration, and test services. Some Benchmark sites support space certifications and requirements, giving customers options for vertical integration of electro-mechanical systems and sub-assemblies. Since space products are so complex, the ability to simplify the supply chain with a single trusted partner for space can lead to a significant efficiency gain.

Spacecraft and satellite development are no walk in the park. There are hundreds of factors to consider from a technical point of view, and the many hurdles related to supply chain and certifications must be overcome before the technical issues are even considered. PT is the partner of choice with critical investments in talent, technology, and industry knowledge, which allow us to meet the stringent needs of leading space system integrators. We've earned the right to be a trusted provider.

To learn more about Benchmark Precision Technologies and our teams in Tempe, Arizona, Concord, CA, and Penang, Malaysia, please visit us at Ready to learn how the Benchmark team can help you take on your space system challenges? Contact us today!

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about the author

Patrick Kealey

Pat Kealey is the General Manager of the Benchmark Precision Technologies Tempe location. Before joining Benchmark, Pat led various operations, across domestic and international site locations. Pat has worked for some of the leading aerospace and defense companies and has several years spent in the Oil and Gas sector. Pat holds a BSME from the University of Connecticut and an MS in Management Engineering from the University of Bridgeport.

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