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Innovation flowers at Thales Alenia Space

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Innovation may be the latest buzzword, but it's really coming into its own at Thales Alenia Space !

3D printing, augmented reality, robots and cobots, Stratobus™, Factory 4.0… Innovation may have become the latest trendy buzzword, but it’s really coming into its own at Thales Alenia Space!

Did you know that Thales Alenia Space is a world champion?

It is in fact, but in which category? It’s an application that was first proven in the auto industry, then aerospace, and is now spreading to a wide range of sectors, such as healthcare and architecture. We’re obviously talking about additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing.  

Thales Alenia Space holds the current world record for the number of parts made by additive manufacturing to be used on satellites in orbit. With the recent launches of the Telkom-3S, SGDC, KOREASAT-7 and Iridium NEXT satellites, that makes 79 new metallic 3D-printed parts and 350 polymer tube supports for chemical propulsion systems that Thales Alenia Space has in orbit. It all started two years ago, when the first aluminum antenna support made via this process was launched on the Turkmenalem/Monacosat satellite. Since then, all of the company’s telecom satellites include antenna supports and lightweight reflector fittings made by 3D printing.

Robot or cobot?

Faster, cheaper, better. While innovation continues to play a key role in today’s fiercely competitive marketplace, companies also have to optimize processes and transform their production operations to meet market demand for lower costs and higher production rates. Automation has become one of the pivotal solutions for companies to manufacture more satellites in today’s fast-evolving industrial environment.

That’s why robots and cobots (collaborative robots) are now present in Thales Alenia Space’s clean rooms. One of the best examples of this trend is SAPHIR, a robotic system designed to automate the installation of inserts in the structural panels making up telecom satellites. This new approach considerably reduces the time needed to glue the 3,500 inserts in each panel: this operation now takes about one week for a single operator, instead of three weeks for two persons working in shifts. Using the SAPHIR system, Thales Alenia Space has already produced a flight-standard panel, with automated insert installation, for Bangladesh’s Bangabandhu Satellite-1. Learn more about SAPHIR.

What about cobots? As explained above, these are collaborative robots, meaning robots designed to interact safely with operators in an industrial environment. Fitting perfectly into this milieu, cobots boost both productivity and flexibility. At Thales Alenia Space, for instance, one cobot takes the form of a fixed arm attached to another arm mounted on an autonomous vehicle. The cobotic arm is fitted with sensors, allowing  it to detect obstacles or people, and stop its own movement. Designed to carry out repetitive tasks (such as compiling sets of fasteners, known as “kitting”), these cobots interact smoothly with operators – with just a simple touch, the operator can start or stop an operation – while also freeing them from time-consuming and arduous tasks.

Robots and cobots are an integral part of a comprehensive strategic approach based on innovation, better known as the smart factory, or Factory of the Future, which entails integrating disruptive technologies in the production process. The previous examples showcase the host of projects underpinning “Factory 4.0”. More than ever, the future is now in Thales Alenia Space’s clean rooms – and here’s another example.

A futuristic new facility in Belgium

Thales Alenia Space took a huge step toward Industry 4.0 in May 2017 with the inauguration of a center of excellence for automated production, dedicated to the assembly of photovoltaic assemblies for solar panels on satellites. State-of-the-art technologies will be incorporated in the production process, including robotic assembly of panels, digital data management and traceability, checks and tests on the production line, and augmented reality. “This production facility will be one of the first in the world to use programmable logic controllers for this type of space product,” explained Jean-Loïc Galle, CEO of Thales Alenia Space.

The new facility, in Hasselt, Belgium, will complement operations at Leonardo’s center of excellence in Nerviano, Italy, which designs and builds photovoltaic assemblies for the European and Italian space agencies. This new Industry 4.0 center will enable the Space Alliance and its parent companies to provide very competitive solutions in all segments of the satellite market.

StratobusTM: a phenomenon!

And what about the phenomenon known as StratobusTM? A favorite of geeks and early adapters of all sorts, this airship has sometimes been compared to other concepts, from zeppelins to Google’s Loon balloons, or drones. What’s the truth?

StratobusTM is in fact an autonomous multi-mission stratospheric airship, in functional terms halfway between a drone and a satellite. Mainly designed for local or regional missions, Stratobus is the perfect complement to satellites. It’s designed to fly at an altitude of 20 kilometers (above the jet stream and air traffic), and carry out various civil and/or military missions on a regional level, for telecommunications, navigation, observation, etc.

In particular, StratobusTM could be used for surveillance missions, including land areas, maritime zones, oil platforms, piracy at sea, etc., as well as environmental monitoring missions.

For military applications, StratobusTM could be moved along with changing theaters of operation. For navigation, it could reinforce AIS [Automatic Identification System] in heavy traffic zones to improve traffic control.
StratobusTM will weigh nearly 7 metric tons and stretch 115 meters long (1-1/2 times that of an A380), measuring 34 meters wide at its maximum diameter. In other words, for local missions extending to a horizon of 500 kilometers, StratobusTM is an exemplary multidisciplinary platform – and an excellent example of innovation in the air! Learn more about StratobusTM


Space 9 June 2017
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