Really complex, really fast

Soaring high for the Royal Australian Air Force

by Mary Blake

When lives hang in the balance, communication is critical for an aircraft that flies combat, special operations, search /survivor and disaster relief missions.
That’s why the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)/Airbus came to the AIRLINK® SATCOM antenna team at Ball Aerospace to upgrade a fleet of C-130J aircraft. It was late 2014 when the RAAF asked “Can you give us a demo antenna in February (2015) and then 12 more antenna systems in about five months?”

An AIRLINK antenna enters an anechoic chamber for testingA sophisticated system
To understand the impact of this request, it helps to know a little about AIRLINK Swift BroadBand antennas. They provide in-flight telephone, fax and data transmission via the INMARSAT system of geostationary satellites. Each antenna is a system, composed of two antenna assemblies that are mounted on aircraft’s exterior, and about six highly complex electronic boxes that steer the antenna. The outside assemblies hug the side of the aircraft to reduce drag and the active electronics are inside for higher reliability. These are complex systems with thousands of parts and many specialized electronic circuit boards.
Ryan Glenn, Ball’s AIRLINK program manager was charged with delivering a high volume of SATCOM antennas in less than half the normal production time. “Everyone in our Ball AIRLINK group here in Westminster and technicians from Ball Boulder stepped up to the plate,” said Glenn. “Just the staffing was an enormous challenge—a huge amount of work in a short time.” In addition, manufacturing processes were re-configured and a high volume of parts ordered.

Testing at Ball's FAA Repair DepotA race against the clock
The first push was to provide a demo antenna to be installed on an RAAF aircraft in time for the Australian International Air Show, which was due to open in a few short months. Two loaner beam steering units were upgraded with Swift BroadBand capabilities and inventory was checked against incoming materials. “We were jockeying things around – our normal antenna lead time is 6 months, but that was reduced to 3 months to meet the demo delivery date,” explained Glenn.
The 10-month standard lead time for one antenna system was now the lead time for the 12 remaining systems.  Team leads took on the staffing challenge and got a commitment to work weekends. They also leveraged working relationships within the company for additional staff.  All electronic boards were outsourced to minimize touch labor. Weekly phone calls to the supplier to nail down tiny details on four different printed circuit board designs were necessary to accommodate the huge wave of work.

A C-130J is a workhorse for many different types of missionsJuggling priorities and resources 
On an accelerated schedule, team members provided technical support to Airbus, negotiated the terms of the contract with an international customer, and ensured that thousands of high performance parts were delivered on time.
The only glitch came from a cable supplier who delivered late with quality issues. Ball team members flew to California and met with the supplier manager to correct the problem before the cables shipped and put together a risk mitigation plan. As each antenna system was completed, it was sent to the customer, making it easy for them to extend the delivery date for a handful of cables.
Some 40 Ball team members worked on the contract around the clock to deliver on schedule. Now the company has a process to respond to similar requests.  “I feel we’re in a good position to handle another large opportunity,” noted Glenn.