What does “quality” mean to you? The specifics differ from one industry to another, but invariably, quality ranks at or near the top of every business’ priorities. In this feature, two veterans of Canada’s fast-growing space industry discuss their definition of quality, its impact on their business, and Macfab’s role in helping them achieve and sustain their standards.
In 2007, a young engineering student from University of Toronto followed up on a referral from a colleague, and called Macfab about quoting on a project. The student has moved on, but his “department” at the university – the Space Flight Lab at U of T’s renowned Institute for Aeronautics and Space (UTIAS) – has remained an active Macfab customer ever since.
In that same year, one of SFL's staff engineers, Cordell Grant, was also referred to Macfab. “I was doing the mechanical drawings [for SFL’s nanosatellites] and it was a recommendation: ‘We don’t like what's coming out of this shop, here’s another place [called Macfab] we can try.’ And ten years later, we’re still here.”
Cordell Grant photo from Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences
"We had a shop that was cheap," says Cordell, "but their quality left a lot to be desired. If we needed something really fast, they’d turn that around for us pretty quick. But if we needed something done right, then we would come to MacFab. Even if it took a little longer, or it cost a little more."
As part of Cordell’s involvement in the early development of SFL’s nanosatellites, he worked closely with Doug Sinclair, founder of Sinclair Interplanetary, on the design of reaction wheels and startrackers.
Soon Doug’s company was doing business with Macfab, too – and, like SFL, they are still working with Macfab a decade later. (In late 2016, Cordell joined Sinclair Interplanetary to serve as its chief operating officer.)
Doug Sinclair is no less compromising than Cordell in his quality standards. He offered a different but equally relevant perspective: “I’d say that the resource that is most precious to us is time. The most expensive thing that happens is, we try to get something and it fails in receiving inspection and has to go back. That costs us time, so that’s really where we need things to be right.”
As Doug explains, that familiar notion of “time is money” has significant relevance in the context of readying your product for launching it into space: “If you make a commitment to launch on a particular rocket, you’ve got to be there or the bus leaves without you. Not only do you forfeit your launch, you’ll forfeit a large portion of the money you’ve put down for that launch.”
Is there such a thing as too much quality?
Each one of Sinclair Interplanetary’s products – including reaction wheels, torque rods, star trackers and sun sensors – is expensive and highly complex. And they are built to operate in space for years at a time. Yet despite the high stakes involved, when even the slightest malfunction can disrupt an entire mission, Doug and Cordell are reluctant to overstate the importance of quality.
“When you say everything that goes into a satellite needs to be high quality, I won’t argue that statement,” says Doug. “But it’s not so much because it’s going into the space environment, and it’s going to be subjected to such horrible things."
Technicians in Macfab’s clean room are potting threaded inserts on a two-foot square aluminum honeycomb panel.
“We’re not looking necessarily for the performance of each thing to be way up there. We just need it to be what we want it to. We just need everything to be in compliance with the procurement spec.”
Making those tolerances as precise as they need to be – no less but also no more – is the very definition of good design, Cordell Grant suggests. “One way to make something more expensive than it needs to be is to apply tight tolerances across the board, regardless of whether you need them or not. The reality is, in 99.9 percent of cases, ± 0.1 millimeters is probably perfectly fine.
“It’s when you get the shaft on a reaction wheel rotor that’s two millimeters ± 0.0025 millimeters, that’s when we would never trust another machine shop to do it. Because no one else has ever demonstrated that they can do that. And Macfab has.”
Reaction wheels designed and built by Sinclair Interplanetary, machined and engraved by Macfab, have been installed in 44 satellites, all of which are still functioning on orbit after several years in service.