Here at satsearch we help individuals, university teams, industry professionals, and national agency representatives to find new products and services for their missions every day.
We work side-by-side with these buyers to assess the commercially-available options for any technology and acquire all of the relevant data and documentation from the suppliers so they can make informed decisions.
In this work we’ve noticed that potential buyers sometimes have questions on the documents and terminology that suppliers use to communicate about products. This is particularly the case for stakeholders from university teams or the public sector who may have less regular engagement with commercial companies in their work.
To help address this need we’ve put together this article featuring a number of foundational concepts and terms that private companies often use to promote and communicate about products.
If you have any further questions about liaising and negotiating with suppliers please feel free to send us an email today and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.
The includes information on the following procurement topics:
- Marketing material
- User manual
- Stock Keeping Unit (SKU)
- Lead time
- Non-disclosure agreement (NDA)
- CAD model
- Engineering model
- Flight model
- Flight heritage and Technology Readiness Level (TRL)
- System Readiness Level (SRL)
- Interface Control Document (ICD)
- ITAR and export controls
- Size Weight and Power (SWaP)
As a potential buyer one of your first interactions with the detail of an unfamiliar product is most likely to be some of the company’s marketing, promotional and sales material.
This will usually be in the form of brochures and flyers if you’re meeting in person, or for online searches it will likely be the company web page or a product page on a site such as satsearch.
The key thing to look out for is the date that the material was produced. Manufacturers regularly improve their development and testing processes which will change the performance specifications of the product.
Other points to watch out for are definitive claims such as “the smallest on the market.”
Firstly, you should try to verify this according to specific measurements and with definitive proof to back it up, so you can be confident in your product choice.
And secondly, again consider how recent the material is – the product might well have been the smallest on the market when the flyer or web page was published, but that could have been 5 years ago and things have moved on!
Datasheets are more detailed and complex versions of flyers or web pages that provide structured, itemised data on product specifications.
The same advice holds true for the previous section – ensure you have the most recent datasheet available to get accurate data on the product.
Also be aware that suppliers commonly create datasheets that cover multiple similar products (such as different CubeSat unit (U) model sizes) so ensure that it is clear which specifications refer to the exact model you need.
A product’s user manual will usually provide vital information about the calibration and integration of the system.
As with other product documentation, ensure that you have a copy of the very latest version so that all technical specifications are up to date.
Not every manufacturer shares user manuals prior to sales (though we always try to encourage them to do so on our platform) so this may be something that you access post-procurement.
Stock Keeping Unit
In datasheets or in other product information you may come across the term Stock Keeping Unit or SKU. This is a manufacturer-specified code that relates to a specific product in a specific size and configuration.
The code may also be described as product number, product code, model number, part number or similar.
As explained above – sometimes it isn’t clear in product information which exact model is being discussed. The SKU can help you identify the precise product (with the right size, weight, and configuration) that you need and also have more focussed conversations with manufacturers.
Space procurement takes a long time and can involve lots of back and forth communication between supplier and buyer. Being clear on the SKU, or using some other unique identifier, will make this faster and easier on both sides.
In addition, a lot of companies give products the same or very similar names to other firms. These are usually quite simple names which makes it easier to find the model you need, but more difficult to choose between companies.
If you’re searching for a fine sun sensor for example, you might find you need to compare the Company A Fine Sun Sensor with the Company B Fine Sun Sensor and it can get confusing in both internal and external discussions.
Using a unique identifier like the SKU will make it clear which product you are referring to.
Companies will often provide a lead time for an individual product. This is the amount of estimated time that they expect to spend on creating, preparing and delivering the product.
There are several steps involved in the preparation of any product before delivery, depending on the technology, such as development, calibration, testing, validation, and packaging for example.
The lead time will often be given in a range (e.g. 8-12 weeks) or with a minimum value (e.g. 3+ months).
You will usually need to engage with the supplier for a more accurate figure, and you will need to share all of the relevant technical details of your mission that you can in this discussion – so it is important to be as prepared as possible.
Also be aware that the lead time is likely to only start when a sale or contract is at least initially agreed between you and the supplier, as only then can they begin developing the product.
Non disclosure agreement
There can be a lot of confidential or proprietary information to discuss in the procurement of a typical space product, and sometimes suppliers ask for a commitment for the buyer to keep certain details private.
This commitment will usually be made in the form of a non-disclosure agreement or NDA. This is a short contract that will specify which product or company information you agree to keep private and may cover individual documents and files too.
For example, some suppliers will not provide a CAD model or ICD (both explained further below) without an NDA in place to make sure that the people they share them with do not forward them on to other parties who the supplier isn’t aware of.
NDAs can also help suppliers protect their intellectual property (IP) from being exploited by competitors if this is an important factor in their area of business.
In general we prefer it when suppliers are happy to share information openly with potential buyers as it helps customers make more informed choices. However, we understand that many businesses work with defence clients or have a public sector heritage that requires they protect aspects of their information.
To account for this at satsearch our managed lead fulfilment service employs a double consent model; we do not share with the buyer any information that the supplier has not given us consent to, and vice versa.
This keeps both parties happy and protected whilst making the procurement process as seamless and conflict-free as possible.
A CAD, or Computer Aided Design, model is a design file that enables engineers to translate concepts into manufacturing approaches.
It contains precise measurements and detailed specifications in a format that can be used with common graphical or engineering software packages.
The CAD model will enable you to test the product’s integration into your overall system allowing an assessment of the physical parameters compared to alternative products.
Testing out a product’s CAD model is an important step in evaluating its performance and suitability for your mission.
As with other product information, ensure that you use the most up-to-date version so that the right product specifications are tested.
The Engineering Model (EM) is essentially a prototype of the final design that is as close as possible to the product which will go into orbit.
Where relevant it will usually incorporate spare flight-grade components and/or commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components to simplify development.
Sometimes a separate Engineering Qualification Model (EQM), with even closer specification to the flight-ready model, is built to undergo rigorous testing. This can include thermal and vacuum tests to ensure effective operation in space.
When speaking with suppliers it is important to clarify whether the model on offer, or the model that you require, is the Engineering Model or Flight Model, in order to clearly assess whether it is suitable for your needs.
The Flight Model (FM) is a version of the product ready to be launched into space.
Any remaining issues or calibration requirements uncovered during testing and qualification have now been resolved and the hardware is constructed of fully validated space-ready components and materials.
The Flight Model is the version of the product that should be procured for integration into the version of your spacecraft that is intended for launch.
Flight heritage and Technology Readiness Level
Any sale comes with a level of risk to both the buyer and seller. On the seller’s side the risk is less, and mainly pertains to the ability of the buyer to afford the purchase, use the product ethically and legally, and not engage in any activity that company would not wish or expect.
On the buyer’s side there is a greater risk that the product will not meet your needs.
To mitigate the buyer’s risk space technology companies acquire and communicate flight heritage. This means that their product has been successfully used in space under the exact (or at least highly similar) conditions in which they will typically be used by future buyers.
In most cases these live tests are carried out in an in-orbit demonstration (IOD) mission (sometimes referred to as in-orbit validation or verification) – demonstrative missions in which the technology is launched and operated under the conditions that it will typically be used for commercial or research purposes.
Companies and agencies often use a scale known as Technology Readiness Level (TRL) to describe the maturity of an individual product.
The TRL scaled has nine different stages (TRL 1, TRL 2, etc.) and the higher a product’s number on this scale the more mature it is.
A product that has been successfully used in space during an IOD mission is said to be at TRL 9 and therefore has flight or space heritage.
As a buyer you will want to look out for products with flight heritage, that are at TRL 9, which you can be confident are technologies that can survive launch and operate effectively in the harsh conditions of space.
If possible, try to find out what details you can about the acquisition of flight heritage that the supplier went through for the products you are interested in.
Ask about the mission timings and orbits, as well as the product configuration that flew; suppliers should be ready and willing to supply you with this information when asked.
System Readiness Level
System Readiness Level (SRL) defines the maturity of a set of components combined in a certain configuration.
Some of the more complex satellite sub-systems consist of multiple components integrated into a functional module.
The Attitude Determination and Control System (ADCS) is a good example. A typical ADCS features positioning sensors, actuators to alter the satellite’s orientation, control functions to manage this activity, and interfaces to connect the ADCS to the overall system.
Each of these components could potentially be acquired from a different manufacturer and integrated into one of several possible configurations and calibrations.
In these situations, despite each of the individual components having flight heritage as described above, the overall system may not have been flown, and so its System Readiness Level (SRL) can be said to be lower.
SRL is not a particularly common concept in the industry, though it is a logical extension of the TRL concept, but if it does crop up in your procurement discussions you will be prepared!
Interface Control Document
The Interface Control Document, or ICD, is an important piece of product information that clearly and explicitly details the full specifications of all interfaces between that product and the overall system and/or any sub-systems that it connects to.
This will include any available engineering diagrams, relevant text, specifications and data, tables and other technical details.
The inputs and outputs of each interface are described in order to enable mission designers to ensure compatibility between the sub-systems and components used in a satellite or other spacecraft.
The ICD will also enable mission designers to specify any required conversion components or protocols to ensure that functions from different sub-systems are seamlessly integrated.
ITAR and export controls
Space is increasingly an international industry. New products and companies are springing up around the world as the commercial potential grows and barriers to entry come down.
This is bringing a new level of competition and innovation to the market that is great for potential buyers – but it may also require you to understand export conditions if purchasing from another country or territory.
The most well-known set of export control regulations are the United States International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). These govern the manufacture, sale, and distribution of certain space- and defence-related technologies to non-US citizens.
Therefore, if you are planning to purchase a product from the US, and are not a US citizen, you may need to comply with ITAR and so will need to build this in to your development and launch plans.
Size Weight and Power
The Sixe, Weight and Power or SWaP value of a space product is typically used to make first order estimates or comparisons.
These three characteristics are some of the most important to optimise for a satellite or spacecraft and are major drivers of development and launch costs, timing and resources.
Hopefully this article has been a useful primer on some of the basic concepts, documents and terminology used in your space procurement processes.
If you have any additional comments or questions then we would be more than happy to discuss things with you – just click here to send us an email.
In addition, if you need dedicated help with the procurement of specific products or services for your missions and projects, you can send us a request at satsearch with information about your requirements and we’ll use our networks of global suppliers to help.
We have also published dedicated market segment overviews for many different satellite and spacecraft sub-systems, components and services - you can see all of these articles (which are updated on a regular basis) at this page.