New Space For Satellites

Spectrum Astro's manufacturing and test facility in Gilbert, Ariz., is "go" for business.

Under Arizona skies, whose very vastness naturally leads the eyes to the heavens, Spectrum Astro Inc.'s $37 million state-of-the-art satellite manufacturing and test facility in Gilbert, southeast of Phoenix, is now open for business. Dubbed by the company the "Factory of the Future," the facility contains more than 135,000 square feet of assembly, integration and test space capable of producing more than 20 medium-sized satellites simultaneously. The new factory -- with multiple clean room areas, including a 14,500-square-foot satellite assembly bay -- is located on an 80-acre site less than two miles south of the company's corporate headquarters in Gilbert. "It's going to allow us to assemble space-shuttle-class vehicles, which are up to 60-feet long or high. And, for the first time, it allows us to do all of the environmental testing here in Arizona," says W. David Thompson, the company's president and CEO. Satellites previously were manufactured in limited space at the headquarters building and tested offsite. "I kind of took the idea that Ford used when he built River Rouge, where the iron ore came in off Lake Erie, and cars went out the other end," relates Thompson. "So piece parts come into one end of this building, and satellites go out the back." The facility was designed to manufacture cost-effectively while minimizing risk during production. To reduce risks during manufacturing, the factory's assembly, integration and test areas are located in the same building and on the same level, allowing satellites to move easily from assembly bays to environmental test chambers on air-bearings or carts. "Anytime you have a piece of high-value hardware . . . you want to handle it as little as possible as you get work-in-process built up into it," stresses Thompson. Additionally, the single-level factory design promises to enhance productivity and reduce cycle time for integration and testing. To help lower the costs of satellite production, the building uses a control and management system for lighting and HVAC. For example, motor drive systems from compressors to air handlers are on variable frequency drives that allow them to use only the power needed to meet the load. Lighting is high-efficiency fluorescent. Major construction of the new manufacturing facility, where 50 production people work, began in January 2003 and was completed this past February. The only economic development incentive: a rebate on the city's portion of the sales tax on construction materials. "I think it was worth about $250,000," says Thompson. Founded in 1988, Spectrum Astro, with a total of 550 employees (mostly engineers), is among other things the prime contractor for the U.S. National Aeronautics & Space Administration's Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope and Swift satellite programs and the Pentagon's Space Test Program's Coriolis and Communication/Navigation Outage Forecasting System satellites. Spectrum Astro also is part of the Lockheed Martin Corp. team competing to design and build the next generation of Global Positioning System satellites.

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