How to mass produce for space

by Laura Overly

It’s the small things that cause issues on orbit.

That’s the single biggest thing I’ve learned across nearly two decades in project management and planning at NASA, Aerojet, Dendreon, and Millennium Space Systems, among others.

Across my experience in both aerospace and biotech, I’ve encountered and had the opportunity to try on different thought processes and different business models. At one aerospace company, for instance, I learned about established, tightly-managed systems. While they were (very successfully) designed to maintain high quality control, they sacrificed innovation and stifled creativity. On the flip side, I’ve also seen organizations with few to no systems in place, whose laissez-faire attitude meant mismanaged inventory was almost a point of pride.

My conclusion from those wide-ranging experiences? Keep things simple.

What does that even mean, Laura? How do I do that?

1. Build it into your DNA.

At Phase Four, our manufacturing culture is geared toward speed and cost efficiency to meet megaconstellation demand.

Illustration of a mega-constellation of communication satellites.

Our core values are centered around transparency, curiosity, and collaboration.

Transparency. Managing your supply chain is largely about developing relationships to help things move smoothly. This doesn’t just mean transparency with suppliers, but with customers, too. Our customers have become some of our best advocates. When we’re open about where we have gaps, that enables our customers to pitch in where they might have more leverage.

Curiosity. We value teammates who are curious, who aren’t afraid to ask hard questions. Those hard questions help us unlock creative solutions to never-before-seen problems.

Collaboration. There is always a natural push and pull between sales and operations teams within an organization. When communication isn’t aligned, it’s a huge challenge to accurately forecast customer demand. In turn, we weren’t able to share our component capacity needs and expectations with our suppliers. Strong collaboration between teams at Phase Four enables us to manage our risk cleanly and share resources efficiently.

A busy day in the P4 lab.

2. Keep your toolbox fresh.

What’s in my toolbox today?

Data visualization. I use my data viz tools daily to help me answer questions and quickly spot areas that need attention. Can we support the demand we’re forecasting? Will our suppliers meet our demand? My data inputs come from many disparate sources, and visualizing it in one dashboard helps me understand my own story. More importantly, it helps me share that story with others — like key decision makers — in a compelling way.

Automation. While research and design and the flexibility it requires will always be embedded into our production line, we’re thoughtful about automating key aspects, like testing, parts inspection and data collection. We incorporate sensors that send data directly into our stores to minimize data entry.

3. Engineer for simplicity.

This third point is really just a love letter to the engineering culture at Phase Four. Our team designs for manufacturability, which is game-changing in an industry known for long manufacturing lead times.

It’s a key pain point for companies seeking to outfit large constellations with electric propulsion. While there’s funding in electrical propulsion for advanced research around mass-producing hollow cathodes and using hollow cathodes with alternative fuels like krypton, our team has gone ahead and engineered the pesky cathode out of our electric propulsion (EP) system altogether.

This cuts our lead time for components by over 75%, and enables us to bring EP to the masses. And as a bonus, our electrode-less system means we can use any neutral gas as propellant.

If what we’re building (and how we’re doing it) sounds exciting to you, join us! We’re hiring: