COTS, Customised or In-House For The Space Industry?

27th May 2024
COTS, Customised or In-House For The Space Industry?

Over the last decade, the space sector has seen transformative change. Attitudes and mindsets are very different now. After long periods of technology development and years of lead times, projects are developing rapidly. The NewSpace movement has brought forth a growing group of space pioneers that have cast the notoriously risk-averse attitudes of the space sector to one side. NewSpace has shifted the industry to a completely new era and long-established manufacturers are having to change their business models as they must adapt or lose significant market share to this raft of new players that are threatening what has been the status quo of decades.

Spacecraft development is speeding up, especially in Low Earth Orbit, where NewSpace companies are turning projects around at record speed. Their spacecraft are no good to them on the ground for years on end. They need to be up in space, operational and making money to get return on investment on funding from private investors.

Couple this with an increasing access to space. Space players were once dependent on a small handful of launch operators to get them where they needed to go. However, today we see the emergence of players such as SpaceX, RocketLab, Orbex, Skyrora, Firefly and many more that are in development that promise cheaper, rapid access to space and rideshares that spread the cost. This means that spacecraft manufacturers can trial technology much more easily and be assured of their ride into orbit. The net result is more of an appetite to try new things – and take more calculated risks.

The COTS revolution

The debate over Commercial Off The Shelf, or COTS, versus customised and in-house development of space components has rattled on for many years. In the past, traditional space players have always been very cautious and looked for flight-proven technology, preferring to develop components in-house. This could be for several reasons, but more often than not, it is tied to a lack of available external commercial options, insurance / government policy and an avoidance of failure. The large satellite projects of the past would often be years in development and the risk that one component could result in the loss of a spacecraft meant that development in-house simply made sense. Electro-mechanical & robotics systems and digital electronics were historically very niche and with much less human resources / experience and capacity in the market.

While the defence sector has been using COTS for years, it is only recently that we have seen an increased adoption of COTS in the wider space sector. It is being driven by NewSpace players where COTS components have become critical, and their adoption is literally transforming space technology.

COTS or Customised?

Traditional manufacturers have long preferred to take the research and development of their components in-house as it gives them a high level of control. They can find their own engineering team, protect their intellectual property, incur lower unit costs, develop their components to their exact specifications and essentially de-risk their mission with heritage. They know how the component was designed, the supply chain and the traceability of the component. Insurers like to know where each part has come from. However, this is incredibly time consuming and expensive. There are huge amounts of overheads to consider such as premises, cleanrooms, human resource management, rigorous testing and a team of skilled hardware and software teams that need to be fed with continuous work packages.

COTS components eliminate the complexity and cost of development and testing in-house, with guaranteed performance and rapid lead times that speed up time to market. By leveraging the supply chain, as the defence sector has learned to do, commercial NewSpace companies are ensuring that they can maintain their chosen launch window, assuring that their mission will launch when they say it will. COTS manufacturers have already made the investment in the R&D, the integration, the clean room and the project management. They have the engineering staff available. They offer quality in production and economies of scale, and many are already TRL8/9 flight proven, and thus are low risk. The products undergo intensive testing for shock, vibration, cooling and radiation and other environmental testing. This may result in a more expensive cost per unit, but the hard work is taken out of it, and traceability can also be provided, if that is required for insurance purposes. Continuous production of common hardware and component batch procurement in high volumes ensures regular rad testing and assembly costs are minimised and spread across a number of programs.

Customised components fall somewhere in between the two. They are essentially COTS, but they are adapted for specific use cases. COTS manufacturers work with the client to understand their requirements and then make changes to the original commercial component. This means that the customer avoids lengthy in-house development and the long lead-times and high costs associated with it. In modern COTS electronics design, the same hardware can often be re-configured in software, with locked down and verified firmware to allow flexibility in encoder selection and compatibility of multiple motor types. This also allows common hardware across the spacecraft platform for control of a number of different potential supplier subs systems. One set of software learning and common hardware traceability / software communication protocols and verification can greatly reduce the development time and costs.

COTS manufacturers and the space industry

Versatility is the name of the game when manufacturing COTS components for the space sector.

Many space companies prefer to leave the development and testing to a company like ourselves that will not only deliver COTS products for them to integrate straight into their systems, but also that produces customised equipment as and when it is needed for specific missions.

Flexibility is important for COTS manufacturers. Though the products are based on the same blueprint, the capability to adapt to meet different requirements is essential.

If a customer decides to customise a COTS component and they need it to do a specific job, we will work with them to determine everything that must be adapted. Then, we establish a statement of work, the classification required and source proven space-rated components.

COTS manufacturers must have a strong ecosystem and testing partner network in place so that they know they can rely on easy access to the parts that they require, to ensure quality and traceability and capacity within regular ongoing scheduled test centre bookings. These relationships take time to build but they are integral to a successful and wrinkle-free engineering and production process as all the pieces must fit together and ensure that components are produced on time and budget.

Weighing it up

Every space project is unique. It may require certain features, a specific coating, a particular movement, or the main goal will be to ensure it is in orbit as soon as possible and will satisfy the required lifetime and performance specifications. However, it all depends on what is available in terms of time and budget and people power. Whatever the aim, it is worth looking at the advantages and negatives of a COTS and customised approach.

It cannot be denied that COTS equipment is giving NewSpace players true agility and flexibility to focus on their end goal, rather than getting tied up in the research and development process of individual components. But what players need to keep in mind is COTS does not necessarily mean that costs are significantly lowered. If traceability is required by insurers, this will instantly push up the price and the customer is paying for all of those overheads absorbed by the provider – the engineering staff, the clean rooms, the facilities, the testing.

When considering customised components, this can involve a slightly longer lead time due to a more involved process / software modifications, testing. COTS components can be modified and customised to the exact customer specifications all in a fraction of the time that in-house development would take, allowing faster time-to-market.

With a NewSpace sector that is burgeoning, and traditional space players looking to up their game in a supremely competitive environment, it is no wonder that the COTS approach is enjoying a boom. That said, there is still also a time and place for the more personal approach. By offering both, adopting a flexible, can-do approach and developing a robust ecosystem of partners, component manufacturers can cover every requirement and help spacecraft manufacturers to get to orbit more rapidly.

Piers Olsen is the CEO of Olsen Actuators and Drives

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