Software from Siemens PLM is helping transform how scientists and engineers at the University of Leicester Space Research Centre develop next-generation space science instrumentation

Sending equipment into space involves an extensive development program – after all, there is little opportunity to fix problems once these products have left earth. Dr.  John Pye, who manages the University of Leicester Space Research Centre, explained: “Hardware must not only be proven to perform as required, it must have rigorous traceability and quality control. This all has to be done within strict cost and schedule constraints.”

It costs in excess of $30,000 per kilogram to launch a piece of hardware into space, so to meet performance criteria, scientists and engineers at the Space Research Centre rely on NX and Teamcenter (from Siemens PLM software) to design, simulate and manufacture to the exacting standards demanded. In fact the software has been used in a number of lifecycle projects, including the first European rover mission to Mars, which is due to take place in 2018.

The Centre has been involved in space research for 50 years, working closely with partners such NASA and the European Space Agency. It develops sensors, telescopes, spectrometers and other scientific instrumentation, and associated mechanical structures, electronics and power generation systems. Its project portfolio includes missions to study the Earth and other planets in our own solar system and beyond, as well as other stars and galaxies in the universe.

Fifteen years ago the mechanical design and analysis team started using NX I-deas, which is an earlier version of what is now NX. However, having completed the transition from I-deas to NX and introduced Teamcenter, the Centre has transformed its workflow. Piyal Samara-Ratna, CAD administrator and mechanical engineer, commented: “The NX modelling tools have removed the need to focus on the production of complex 2D drawings. We make extensive use of parametric modelling techniques and WAVE-linking to create our geometry. When we change dimensions, the whole assembly responds and this allows us to quickly adapt to evolving requirements.”

The Centre runs three four-axis Tryax milling machines and one computer CNC lathe using NX CAM. These accept models, which come directly from engineers and are managed with Teamcenter. There is also a 3D printer, used for prototyping and demonstration purposes.

“We originally used prototyping tools for conference models, but we are now using it more and more for design activities, particularly in integration activities when we need to understand tool access and viewing on screen is not good enough,” Samara-Ratna added.

Powerful tools

The complete design-to-production cycle is managed through Teamcenter, which is used to collect information such as the toolpaths generated through the manufacturing process. 

NX is very powerful, commented

Ivor McDonnell, senior mechanical engineer for the Mercury Imaging X-ray Telescope (MIXS) instrument at the Space Research Centre. MIXS is due for launch on the European Space Agency’s Bepi Colombo mission to Mercury in 2015. “NX gives us tools that move seamlessly between the different phases of design and manufacturing, and it integrates the whole cycle. We have been actively involved in all aspects of the MIXS project, and using NX and NX Nastran we support all the major test activities, including vibration testing to simulate the launch load. We find the NX tools particularly effective at providing good correlation to actual design environments,” he said.

Another project benefiting from the use of NX and Teamcenter is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), set to replace the Hubble Space Telescope in 2018. The primary mirror on this telescope is six times larger and it has a sun shield the size of a tennis court to protect it. The University of Leicester is the lead mechanical engineering team for the international consortium developing one of the four science instruments sitting behind the mirror: the Mid Infrared Instrument (MIRI).

“We found NX very useful for looking at all mechanical aspects of the instrument and the allocated envelope, including tool access, and for designing the ground support equipment that will be used to transport the instrument to NASA,” commented Jon Sykes, lead mechanical engineer for MIRI at the Space Research Centre. “This is an innovative solution that costs substantially less than typical systems, and we successfully tested it by shipping a prototype model to NASA.”

Commenting on the use of NX and Teamcenter, Samara-Ratna said: “Together they create a cohesive environment, where a range of experts can engage, interact and discuss design issues. Teamcenter is a single source of information and control. Our instruments designed for the Mars rover, for example, are fully managed within Teamcenter. We have gained both flexibility and protection. Mistakes cannot be propagated through the system, so there is no danger of someone making a change that may have a negative effect. Our electronics engineers are able to export full 3D electronics boards into our models, and the integration of electrical and mechanical design has improved our efficiency and reduced re-design time. As a result, the time from concept to final product is much shorter.

“We collaborate with multiple institutes, large and small, all using their own software. NX has the ability to handle different data formats and synchronous technology enables us to manipulate models almost as if they were our own design.”

Samara-Ratna concludes: “The NX product development solution is absolutely fundamental to what we do here and is now an intrinsic part of how we operate. We are making the tools of NX available to more students and extending the benefits from the engineering environment into project management.”

Siemens PLM Software