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Making Next-Gen Satellite Communications a Reality With the Help of 3D Scanning Technology

Leading SATCOM antenna manufacturer Eclipse Composites blazing a trail in composites engineering

Published: Monday, May 15, 2017 - 12:01

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Everyone in manufacturing has heard about the fantastic properties of composite materials, but if you’re not involved in satellite communications (SATCOM), you’ve probably never heard of Eclipse Composites. If you are into SATCOM and particularly SATCOM antennas, you know the company is a leading name in the industry. You’d also know that Eclipse is performing cutting-edge engineering and manufacturing with composites.

Eclipse is a high-volume manufacturer of next-generation products for the defense, aerospace, and microwave communications markets. The company has earned a reputation as a leader in developing advanced composite hardware that is designed to meet the rigorous standards of the U.S. military.

“Eclipse is the industry standard in SATCOM antennas,” says Jake Leikam, quality assurance engineer at Eclipse. “If you take a walk around the floor of any satellite show, you’ll see our products all over the place. We’re known worldwide as the best antennae out there.”

Eclipse Composite Headquarters

Waves of change

In 2006, Todd McNeill, veteran SATCOM engineer, founded Eclipse Composites in his garage (à la Apple). McNeill’s can-do company has been growing steadily ever since. Composite SATCOM antenna manufacturing is a unique and lucrative corner of the market. It’s also an evolutionary business in which things change, and change quickly.

“When we started, we were dealing with the X and Ku band and dealing with low .020 in.-.030 in. root mean square (RMS),” says Leikam. “RMS is a measurement of a surface’s deviations vs. its nominal or theoretical shape as defined by the CAD model. Along comes the Ka band, which is a more focused beam on a higher frequency… that’s where the tighter tolerances became critical for us to achieve, specifically because surface deviations or undulations affect reflectivity and therefore signal quality.”

“Ka is a high-frequency band that requires a higher precision,” says Andrew Pett, process engineer at Eclipse. “The whole surface of a Ka dish has to be within about a .010 in. RMS.”

Riding the waves of change

“The FARO Scan Arm is a huge part of our capabilities and being able to produce the things that we do,” asserts Jake Leikam, quality assurance engineer at Eclipse. “It is, in my opinion, an outstanding piece of equipment. It’s extremely fast; we can inspect parts in minutes vs. hours or sometimes even days. Older techniques just can’t compare.”

To successfully grow into this lucrative field, Eclipse invested in a FARO Edge ScanArm.

The FARO Edge ScanArm is the perfect contact/noncontact measurement system. Unlike other scanning systems, the ScanArm’s hard probe and the Laser Line Probe can digitize interchangeably without having to remove either component. Users can accurately measure prismatic features with the hard probe, then laser scan sections requiring larger volumes of data—all in one simple tool.

FARO Edge ScanArm

“We were trying to position the individual antenna petal segments in a small CMM,” says Pett. “With the dual curvature of the petals, there’s no flat datums to work with, and it’s hard to fixture for the CMM to be able lock it down and take points off of it. Then there are the size constraints; our dishes go from 12 to nearly 40 inches. The CMM just wasn’t a viable option to monitor the dimensional tolerances, so we started looking into other options, including the FARO Arm. That’s ultimately what drove us to get a FARO ScanArm.”

SATCOM Antenna Petals

The FARO Edge ScanArm is the ideal tool for inspection, point cloud-to-CAD comparison, rapid prototyping, reverse engineering, and 3D modeling, and has become an indispensable part of Eclipse Composite’s processes.

3D Scanning for Manufacturing

“The FARO Scan Arm is a huge part of our capabilities and being able to produce the things that we do,” asserts Leikam. “It is, in my opinion, an outstanding piece of equipment. It’s extremely fast; we can inspect parts in minutes vs. hours or sometimes even days. Older techniques just can’t compare.”

Making sense of the data

In any business endeavor, quality data require quality interpretation. Inspecting and analyzing a measured part is only possible if the digitized data are properly positioned and oriented in 3D.

“We’ve married-up our FARO ScanArm with PolyWorks software,” says Leikam. “It works great, and it’s very user-friendly. Our inspection criteria are very customer-driven. Some customers want a full-spectrum comparison point for their systems, and other companies just want a color map and a feel-good inspection.”

At the core of the PolyWorks workflow is the extraction of measured part dimensions and computing the deviations to their corresponding nominal dimensions. Thanks to the remarkable flexibility integrated into PolyWorks, dimensions can be extracted from measured point clouds, polygonal models built from point clouds, or probed points. Nominal dimensions can also be extracted from a CAD model or a reference measured part.

3D Scan Software

“The FARO ScanArm allows us to collect a lot of data, and PolyWorks is a great tool to analyze that data in different shapes and forms,” explains Pett. “We’ve used it for basic color maps, and we’ve also used it to combine different parts’ point-cloud data and combine them together to an average to help us modify a tool to yield a better part.”

Composite Material SATCOM Antenna

Does the Eclipse team feel that the 3D scanning technology has the legs to grow with them?

“It only takes about four weeks to learn all the controls,” notes Leikam. “And then a lifetime to discover all the additional things you can do with it.”

Portable tools to create portable products

“The portability of the ScanArm is outstanding,” claims Leikam. “If we need to do an on-site inspection, that happens really quick. We’ve had instances where we had to go check molds that we’ve outsourced. We were able to just pack up the ScanArm, grab a laptop, and go. In 10 minutes, we were up and running and inspecting the part.”

Return on investment

“It’s difficult to pinpoint when we saw a return on investment, but certainly it paid for itself the first year of use,” says Leikam. “We get contracts that require this level of technology and quality-inspection reporting, so we wouldn’t even be able to function at this level as a company without it. Especially working into the Ka field, we would not be able to meet customer expectations for tight tolerances. There would be such a huge lag time, people would just go somewhere else. We’ve certainly seen ROI several times over since we purchased it.”

Takeaways

SATCOM antenna manufacturing is, of course, not the only vertical affected by rapid changes in materials and manufacturing methods. The fact is, having the proper tools for modern manufacturing can be a deciding factor in whether your organization is profitable or whether it can even compete in a given field at all.

“The thing is that, without the FARO ScanArm, we wouldn’t have the capability to do the things that we do now,” admits Pett. “The biggest thing for us is that investing in the ScanArm was critical to our growth.”

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About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is a contributing editor and the content-marketing coordinator at Quality Digest. With a varied career from mechanic to artist to inventor holding a U.S. patent, but a journalist at heart, he’s produced freelance feature articles, op-ed pieces, ad copy, and display communications.