Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are the most innovative segment of the European economy, but they have been under-represented in space – despite it being one sector where innovation is always in demand. The Thames Embankment in London was the setting for a gathering intended to help transform this situation.
More than a hundred businesspeople, researchers and members of space industry organisations came from 14 European countries to attend the latest SineQuaNet Workshop, which took place in London’s Institution of Technological Engineering on 8 December.
The workshop began with an address by Michel Courtois, ESA Director of Technical and Quality Management and Head of ESA's largest establishment, ESTEC (the European Space Research and Technology Centre), based in Noordwijk, in the Netherlands.
The Director explained that manufacturing for the harsh environment of space is an extremely demanding task, giving rise to highly specialised unique engineering requirements, industrial processes and standards, as well as complex management procedures - with large-scale space projects typically multi-partner and trans-national in nature.
It all adds up to a daunting environment for inexperienced smaller companies, hardly helped by increasing vertical integration of larger space firms, such in-house arrangements reducing SMEs’ opportunities to sub-contract on ESA projects.
“Such challenges present barriers to doing business with ESA,” Courtois explained. “So the idea of the SineQuaNet and its database is to provide specific know-how and hands-on support to facilitate SMEs’ participation in space activities.”
SineQuaNet (Space Intelligence, Engineering and QUAlity NETwork) is envisaged as a network to provide resources and tools for engineering, industrial processes, quality control and management. Larger companies, research organisations and SMEs themselves with relevant skills or facilities to spare will sign up, and SineQuaNet will essentially act in a brokering role between supply and demand.
Typical services would include assisting SMEs with maturing and validating their technologies for space, help them fulfil specific space requirements – including vibration, radiation, outgassing or electromagnetic compatibility standards - and applying industry best practices to foster efficiency and productivity.
SineQuaNet support will be provided on a commercial though non-profit basis: so while SMEs get access to specialist experts and use of suitable facilities, providers maintain an even workload for staff and maximise their return on investment in technical infrastructure.
The aim is to sharpen SMEs’ skills and competencies, to improve their competitiveness not just in the space market but also outside it, and in addition stimulate the emergence of innovative clusters of specialist SMEs.
Nora Bougharout, Head of ESA’s SME Unit, explained that SineQuaNet is one of a variety of Agency measures being carried out to support SMEs, including training, technical support and streamlining of small contract procedures. She presented results from a survey of SME support requirements – intended to be applied to SineQuaNet design.
Priority needs included support with space engineering, access to test and calibration facilities, project management and product assurance. “The dominant expectation the survey found is that expert support will help expand business into new markets,” Bougharout added.
Two case studies were presented to give an idea how SineQuaNet would work in practice. HOS-Technik GmbH is an Austrian firm developing a new high-thermal stability polyimide with potential applications for space. Assistance is provided to qualify it to ESA requirements, which include vacuum, radiation and thermal emittance testing. French company LEIROS Technologies has put together an automated test generator for software – already utilised in the finance, smart card and automotive sectors - which is evaluated by ESA software engineers in terms of its suitability to space systems.
Siemon Smid of the Assystem Group, who participated to setting up ESTEC’s European Space Incubator, discussed provisional results from a baseline SineQuaNet study comparing the SMEs’ needs as derived from the survey and the existing offer in terms of service and facility providers. Smid stressed that the SineQuaNet intention was not to duplicate or compete with existing service providers. “We found there is no space engineering network for SMEs covering Europe,” he said.
Danny Gleeson gave a presentation of how Ireland’s Space Industry Skillnet operates: this national training network, established in February 2006, serves both existing space companies and aspiring new entrants into the sector. Training offered includes quality assurance, technology transfer and licensing plus hand soldering – the latter by ESA experts.
The day’s keynote speaker was Arshad Hafeez of the US-based Performance Review Institute (PRI). “A single person can construct a machine like a bicycle,” Hafeez said. “But as a sign of how we’ve grown as a human race, making today’s space age machines requires complex international effort.”
PRI administers Nadcap, which is a global cooperative programme to set industry-wide standards for special processes and products – such as coatings and welding - across the aerospace engineering and defence industries. Once suppliers are accredited by Nadcap they are added to a list of qualified manufacturers to member ‘primes’ including EADS Space, Boeing and US Space Shuttle contractor the United Space Alliance.
Discussion during the day raised the idea that ESA could similarly provide information on technological standards and set up an accreditation system to label companies as prepared for space work.
“What I can say is that we depend on you to express your needs to us,” Courtois stated, concluding the workshop. “You are our customer for this network.”
Launched in November 2005, the SineQuaNet project is run by ESA’s SME Unit, and jointly funded by ESA and the European Commission. Two further SineQuaNet workshops are scheduled: in Darmstadt, Germany, hosted by ESA's Space Operations Center (ESOC) on 8 February 2007, with the last in the series to be hosted by ESA’s Earth Observation Center (ESRIN), in Frascati, Italy on 28 March 2007.
Registration will open soon at the SineQuaNet Workshop Programme’s website, http://www.isd2006.com/WP5/index.php.