The modern space supply chain – with Pixxel

Podcast

Episode 35 of the Space Industry podcast is a discussion with Kshitij Khandelwal, founder and CTO of Pixxel, about procurement in today’s space industry.

Episode show notes

Pixxel is a space data company headquartered in the USA (Palo Alto, California) and India (Bengaluru).

The company is currently building a constellation of hyperspectral earth imaging satellites. The aim is to develop the ability to detect, monitor, and predict global phenomena, with global coverage every 24 hours.

This work has given Pixxel direct, first-hand insights into a wide range of supply chain issues across many levels of the industry. In this podcast, we cover:

  • What upstream manufacturers look for in new potential suppliers
  • How to work with prospective clients to ensure your proposals are effectively assessed
  • Lead times and logistics considerations in the modern industry
  • What’s on the horizon for Pixxel’s constellation and business

Find out more about Pixxel here on the company’s website or connect with the company on social media such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.


Episode transcript

Please note that while we have endeavored to produce a transcript that matches the audio as closely as possible, there may be slight differences in the text below. If you would like anything in this transcript clarified, or have any other questions or comments, please contact us today.


Hywel: Hello everybody. I’m your host Hywel Curtis. And I’d like to welcome you to the space industry by satsearch, where we share stories about the companies taking us into orbit. In this podcast, we delve into the opinions and expertise of the people behind the commercial space organizations of today who could become the household names of tomorrow.

Before we get started with the episode. Remember, you can find out more information about the suppliers, products, and innovations that are mentioned in this discussion on the global marketplace for space at satsearch.com.

Hello everybody. And welcome to today’s episode. I’m joined today by Kshitij Khandelwal – Founder and CTO – Pixxel is quite a well-known name in the industry. If you aren’t familiar with the company, it Pixxel is currently developing a high resolution hyperspectral imaging satellite constellation. Now this work has involved collaborating with a range of suppliers from around the world.

And today we’re going to discuss some aspects of the modern space supply chain and the context of this work. So firstly, thank you very much for being available to speak today. Is there anything you’d like to add to that introduction?


Kshitij: No, I think that’s it. Thanks so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.


Hywel: Okay. Yeah, you’re more than welcome. Let’s get into the topic. So we were really interested at satsearch in all aspects of procurement and how the modern supply chain or supply ecosystem operates. So I wondered from your side, from the context of the work that you carry out in Pixxel, what challenges in procurement have you witnessed in putting together your missions? Are there certain common issues regarding things like lead times, flight heritage information, or other issues like export controls, those sorts of things.


Kshitij: Yeah, I think you really hit the nail on the head, there’s definitely a lot of challenges that do come with confident procurement. And they start all the way in component selection.

We do go through these exercises where we generate these RFIs requests for information. And when these RFIs are then sent out to different vendors, different providers, first of all, scoping those providers and then screening the technology that we need is something that can be matched by what they have at the moment. And then going over the rest of the process, trying to work towards a proposal from the vendor. In some cases it’s really easy where you have a simple commercial of the shelf component, there’s a fixed price to it. And we just talk about the component, but in most cases, especially in the space industry, because the satellites are not always standard to you or something like that.

You do see a lot of customization that comes with the process. And that adds time cost effort from both sides to come to a solid proposal. We’ve been in this position multiple times where we have had to work with potential vendors to create proposals for ourselves and that happens of fairly regularly.

Apart from this with the recent challenges that the semiconductor supply chain has faced our lead times have shot up all the way from, two months, three months to close to a year for some components and that’s been really hard. And given that the plan is to make these satellites quickly, put them up in space quickly.

There’s going to be a lot of lead time issues that do come into the industry. And given that most space components, these radiation hardened, radiation tolerant components, a lot of stringent testing also comes into the picture. So there’s a lot of workmanship that goes from the vendor side on the testing side of things.

We used to really care about flight heritage before, but now our focus is just ensuring that the test parameters are met. So when we go through this whole process of creating proposals we just try to ensure that a very stringent test guideline is provided to the vendors.

Export controls, yes, usually the vendors take care of it themselves. We try to stay away from ITAR as much as possible. So most of our vendors are NON-US. And as far as import goes that is another issue trying to figure out the banking system to make payments in time because our payments are linked through the HS code of the import or things like that.

So there’s a lot of nuances to the whole process. Especially when you’re dealing with anything and everything, which is. These are some challenges that do come with the entire procurement process, as far as I’ve experienced.&


Hywel: Excellent. Yeah. Quite a range of things there.

And yeah. And as you mentioned, the semiconductor shortage is just a problem across industries, terrestrial and space-based and yeah. Is something everybody feels. Now a lot of the information that you just gave us is obviously at the product level or the component level. I wondered more broadly what sort of qualities is a company like Pixxel or the team, your teams in individually, what sort of qualities are you looking for in a new supplier? How do you decide who to work with assuming they have the component or product that you need?


Kshitij: I think over the last two, three years of just rummaging through spec sheets and data sheets we’ve kinda realized that there are some suppliers that are more about the fluff. And you do see that certain spec on the data sheets are always missing on the, not really clear about what kind of components they’re using. Not very clear about the way they are working. And you usually also get feedback from other people.

For example, When we tried to go for one of our components, to find suppliers for one of our components, and we were having a tough time trying to figure out who to go with. We did take feedback from other companies who gracious enough to, of course within certain bounds, talk about the experiences with the suppliers not the technology, but just general experiences.

And I think just for the suppliers themselves it becomes really important if their documentation is right, if they are responsive and patient at the same time. So we’ve sometimes had to deal with sales teams of suppliers who are just hammering down on this and just trying to sell us a lot of things. Sometimes even things that we do not need. I would say just a, focusing on what the customer’s problem is is usually the best way to go in any industry, space is no exception to that. And from our suppliers we are usually happy if they have experience working in space. So if they have heritage, if they have experience that is always a very good sign, but if they don’t, they need to have good testing plans figured out they need to have the right kind of. The right kind of validation for the technology. We have taken calls in the past to work with suppliers who do not have a lot of experience in the industry, but who had a very clear-cut plan to test out their technology and we’ve given them a fairly big order as well.

These are things that go a long way in creating trust. And we do not look for a supplier. And we think that, this is going to work with them for a couple of satellites or so our preference is always to look at more long-term prospects. And we are locking them in and we would want to go ahead with them for the entire constellation.

So that’s how we like to deal with them. So honest upfront suppliers are always nice to work with. In the end, of course, the technology itself is a deciding cost of the technology as well, and the lead times that it comes with. But yes the way people interact their flexibility in terms of putting together the contract as well, that in some cases they understand constraints on our end and we may understand constraints on their end, and so that’s usually a very healthy relationship for us.


Hywel: Excellent. So yes, quite a lot of things. To balance it, which is as you would expect when you’re looking for a partner for potentially the rest of the constellation, and whatever comes next.

So on that, Pixxel works with manufacturers and service providers, of course, in lots of different areas. I believe from several different countries today. So there’s a few aspects related to the supply chain that I would like to ask you about, some of them you’ve discussed already had been, firstly, you mentioned how important it is for suppliers to be responsive.

How quickly do you find that the suppliers would typically respond to your RFIs including whether that’s, whether that’s for quotes specifically or just individual documents like ICDs or CAD models.


Kshitij: I think we’ve had some really good and some really bad experiences in this. So there have been cases where suppliers have sent across proposals for entire missions inside of a few days. That, that are cases where you know we know that our suppliers are also working really hard regardless of us choosing them or not. So we do have that bit of an appetite for patience but we’ve seen some of the suppliers really go above and beyond to have proposals ready in a week, in four days, five days they work with our teams to do. So that’s also a very healthy sign usually. But in some cases we’ve had issues For a month or so a couple months to just get a hint of a proposal from a few suppliers. It does happen. It’s not always up to them as well need to be clear with our requirements.

But I think business is important to everyone. Whenever people see it coming so usually. Stay covered with it. However, beyond the codes getting different CAD models, ICDs files, and, support our technical support before, after I think that is where a few of the suppliers really do shine because of how prompt they are.

And there are some who are very lethargic or where you can see that the supplier itself is so much overwhelmed with the work that they don’t have the time to actually come up with something like an ICD for you, because they never planned to prepare it. So we’ve had those issues as well. And the way to deal with this is to just constantly keep bugging them because that stops our work, that it’s not it’s a single component related. It mixes with the rest of the mission and a lot of dependencies come based on single components. So  we have had those issues as well. I’m not sure if that answered your question, but that’s just like the conversations we’ve had so far.


Hywel: Yeah, no, absolutely. I think that it’s very important.

I think it’s very important for suppliers to hear that these things are noted by your potential clients. People want the business. If you want the business, they need to behave like it. So that’s great. And then in terms of delivering the actual product itself, if we could take the, the semiconductor shortage out of the equation or just or is whether it’s a temporary blip, whether it’s that the industry or industries as a whole need to adjust to the new normal, if we can take that as a given as a factor, do most suppliers can meet their promise lead times based on your procurement experience.


Kshitij: Yeah they do maybe once or twice, we’ve had some issues in the very beginning.

But apart from that we are actually happy to see most new space suppliers meeting their timelines.


Hywel: Great. And what sort of average lead times have you seen for products that you procure regularly? Was it difficult to say?


Kshitij: No, it’s not difficult to say. So there are some components that really quickly, like antennas can arrive. Because the passive components does not have a lot of testing that’s required. So some components that I’ve really quickly others, not so quickly because there’s a lot of complicated moving thoughts through the entire process, the contractor has sub-contractors. So we’re looking at lead times of nine months. Even 11 and a half months on some of the other components. So it’s a mix. But I would say most like the average lead time for components is five to six months at this point of time.


Hywel: Okay. Interesting. Interesting. Now you mentioned earlier that you, a Pixxel are willing to engage with, at least discuss with suppliers using technology that hasn’t necessarily at TRL nine, perhaps you are, you likely to fly a component in, in a, in an important position that meets your technical specifications, but doesn’t have full flight heritage just yet.


Kshitij: If you find me Gbps radio that hasn’t been flown in space yet, but as tested, according to our specification, We would be more than happy to fly it.

So there’s definitely a lot of these components like radios with high data rate or looking at very high quality systems for some of the some other aspects reaction wheels, you’re looking at star trackers. In some cases, if the destined specifications I’ve met and if the vendor is, there is able to give us very solid confidence that this is going to go work in space based on ground testing. We are more than willing to take a call to fly those components in space, even if they do not have float heritage. However, having flight heritage always helps.


Hywel: Yes, absolutely. Do you often go back to, or would you go back to such suppliers who, maybe haven’t undergone the full range of tests for their product that you would like to see and ask them to do.


Kshitij: We’ve asked them in the past, some of them have agreed to do it. Some of them. It comes to the cost as well. In some cases we understand that if few components are just COTS components that are meant for satellites with one or two years of lifetime we fly missions with six, seven years of, So we wouldn’t want to unnecessarily jeopardize that component just because it has to be adopted for a very different type of satellite.

So in some cases we do understand that there are constraints. But in other cases we are glad that vendors have listened to our requests and have qualified their components. There is a GPS manufacturer in India that we work with who did the same.


Hywel: Brilliant. So again, it goes back to responsiveness and open, transparency and being willing to be flexible.


Kshitij: It does. It does. Yes.


Hywel: Excellent. And then I think the only other factor, the main or the major factor not quite covered is price. So if we assume you know, that there’s established flight heritage for a product that you need, so that’s not one of the factors, would you be looking a certain at what relative reduction in price would you seriously consider switching away from an established supplier you’ve been working with to a new vendor?


Kshitij: It depends. So there is a long-term cost to it and there’s a short-term cost to it. It’s difficult for me to just put a relative reduction in place, but it usually has to do with level of adoption of that technology.

So we’ve already spent some amount of time and money in working with a supplier that we’ve established to integrate them into our system. So for example, it’s critical subsystem the flight computer on the satellite. And we have a certain SOC that we’re using for the flight computer switching to a different SOC if it has a lower cost and a similar spec comes with the challenge of having to redesign the boards, having to redesign some of the technology.

So there’s a lot of this added delta on top of what we already spent. Which usually goes into goes in as a non-recurring engineering cost in the very beginning. And we would want to make sure that Delta is minimum. So at least that being paid for the amount of time and effort being saved, and then pretty much everything else. So it becomes a bit tricky for us to just directly shift from one supplier to another.

For some companies is very easy. So let’s say we are just changing an IMU. Are we are changing a few sensors, that’s usually pretty easy, but the more complicated the competent gets, the more difficult it becomes for us to switch our suppliers in that case, unless we make like a big decision that we’re gonna, let’s say switch from chemical propulsion to electric propulsion.

Let’s make that change. So those big changes very few and if they ever happened at that point of time, we would want to see if the relative reduction in price is something that we, that can also absorb the Delta that we would take to make that change. So I would say that is how I would put it. I hope that answers your question.


Hywel: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a really important insight for suppliers that what they need to consider that there is a cost on your side in order to switch. And as you say, the more complex the component, the higher that cost potentially is, which is really interesting because as space systems and what you can do with the satellite, is becoming ever more powerful because they are getting more complex. And so that is a factor. But at the same time, there are a movement towards modularity and a lot of the subsystems. So there’s two interesting dynamics playing out, but for the individual suppliers they just need to know that it’s not a case of yeah, a simple X percent reduction in price would result in the sale.

There’s a lot more to it than that. So that’s, there is really good information for, I wondered if there was just anything else, any other advice that you might give to potential suppliers out there about how they could, improve their own success in the end?


Kshitij: Don’t charge us a lot. I would say, just being ready with a stronger documentation, having ICDs ready, is usually a very good sign for us. It’s like a green flag. That we see from a supplier we’ve had suppliers, centers, test reports test supports from their flight demonstrations as well. And there’s nothing as validating as seeing that for your product. We have seen cases where supplies have been really dodgy about the flight heritage as well. We have flight heritage but they don’t really talk about it. What we don’t know if the satellite failed or if the component failed or what happened, but it’s good to see test reports and ICDs. So the we’ve had really good time interacting with vendors who have been open with that kind of information. And this is the space industry, so everyone’s always ready to sign NDAs. So having that information on hand is always a good thing.


Hywel: Excellent. That, yeah, that’s that’s great. And enables you to have a higher level of conversation early on because you don’t, you’re not discussing the specifics of, the necessary, flight.


Kshitij: Yeah, it does. The other thing that it does is is that it opens up the discussion about that component inside the team, because usually a single engineer cannot go through the entire ICD or through the test reports you need multiple members of the team to come and look at the component. So we start scrutinizing the technology and we start thinking about how it will fit with the rest of the satellite at a much earlier stage if that information is available, so that’s yeah, that’s how we usually go about it.


Hywel: Excellent. That’s a great advice again. Thank you. So in terms of the, those sorts of technologies that you might be assessing based on the documentation and based on the supplier relationships what sorts of new systems, new technologies on the horizon you perhaps consider it? If you wouldn’t mind, what, what you wouldn’t mind sharing. Of course as the Pixxel constellation continues to grow and mature.


Kshitij: I would say at this point of time high data rate radios is definitely one. We are looking at we are open to explore optical downlinks as well. So pretty much any and all technology aimed at microsatellites, aiming at making their updation, it’s something that we are always interested in. Keep our ears open and are always happy to have these conversations, whether it’s onboard processing, whether it’s data transfer newer technologies and attitude determination control. Pretty much anything and everything. We are more than happy to explore and see how we can bring it into our system. But yeah. Just by principle, it’s important for us to look for high data rate solutions. So that’s like the bare minimum.


Hywel: Fantastic. That’s great. And I just had one very final question. I ask a variation of this to most of our guests, but I wonder what it was in the industry in general. And you can speak specifically about Pixxels work or just across what you’re seeing in across space in general, what you perhaps are most excited about in the next few.


Kshitij: I think so throughout the 20, the last 10 years or so there was a lot of this talk about small satellites, 3Us, 6Us CubeSats and you seeing that all those companies that made these small satellites are moving to make bigger satellites, microsatellites 12U, 16U, and just going away from the CubeSat standard altogether building now the satellites. So you’re seeing this change towards rather than compactness because the launch cost has come down.

So no, you don’t really need to maintain that mass of 3kgs or 4kgs anymore. You can have it a little higher. The kind of fundraising that has happened in the space industry over the last two years and that will happen over the next three four years. It all seems to be in a very positive direction, obviously with Artemis and other things, there’s a lot of opportunity for in the upstream segment to grow which was not there at that scale before. I am particularly optimistic about the next few years for the space industry and the NewSpace industry, because we weren’t there during the, you know, sixties, seventies when they sent humans on moon.

It would be exciting to have a lot more participation from smaller companies, not just in the U S but all over the globe this time as we make such forace again and in general based on Pixxel’s experience this is a very accepting community. We’ve have had people take us seriously since day one, when there was no money in the bank, we have people take us seriously when there is, and that is there’s a lot of simplicity in the way people interact, it’s a very tight knit community and we truly appreciate the kind of support that we’ve gotten from not just our partners, but also suppliers, vendors we have interacted with and they know as well as us that we’ve learned in one way or the another from them on how to do a lot of these things. So yeah, I think that way just generally optimistic about things.


Hywel: Excellent. I think that’s a great place to wrap up always great to end on a positive, optimistic note. Thank you so much for the insights that you’ve shared with us today. It’s been a really useful, I think a lot of the suppliers out there in the industry will be following your words quite closely here. And there’s obviously great to, yeah, for you to bring things together in the way that you did at the end. I think absolutely, in the fifties and sixties, yes, there was no, there wasn’t this NewSpace industry backing up the major exploration missions that were carried out by NASA. So would be really interesting to see what this round is like. And also that there is a lot more international. I think, yeah, I would like to just thank you on behalf of the space industry community, and satsearch community and yeah, wish you all the best with the work the Pixxel is doing. We’ll add some links for everybody in the show notes and we’d like to thank you very much.


Kshitij: Perfect, thank you so much for your time Hywel. It was great speaking to you.


Hywel: Great. Thank you. And yeah, to everybody out there, who’s listening, and spending time with us today. As I said, we’ll share a bit more information about Pixxel when this podcast goes live. And if you’d like to find out more about the company and the work they’re doing, everything is online and then they’d be, I’m sure they’d be more than happy to hear from you across different channels. So thank you again for listening.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Space industry by satsearch. I hope you enjoy today’s story about one of the companies taking us into orbit. We’ll be back soon with more in-depth behind the scenes insights from private space businesses. In the meantime, you can go to satsearch.com for more information on the space industry today, or find us on social media, if you have any questions or comments. Stay up to date, please subscribe to our weekly newsletter and you can also get each podcast on demand on iTunes, Spotify, the Google play store, or whichever podcast service you typically use.

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