Flat-panel antenna manufacturer NXTCOMM is marking external validation of its Ku-band solution with a major push. The company wants to scale up for production quickly, and a handful of recent milestones bode well for those plans.
It did exactly what it said it would do. It sounds almost boring, but that’s not the case at all.– Steve Newell, Chief Commercial Officer
Moving towards mass manufacturing
Getting a small test board working is challenging. Transforming from that to full-scale manufacturing adds complexity and risks. But Chief Commercial Officer Steve Newell describes the results from the initial test boards as “spectacular” and nearly identical to the predictions from NXTCOMM’s models.
Next up are the full size panels, roughly 3-4x larger than the test boards. They feature hundreds of elements instead of just tens. These panels form the foundation of what will eventually be the antennae products delivered to customers. “All of the risk that we put into the demo boards proves out the design features. That risk reduction exercise is important, to the point that we’ve proven out those design criteria. And we’re looking for ways to further reduce risk to ensure that we have ease of manufacturability, to ensure that the manufactured product mimics these highly doted over test boards.”
Co-Founder & CEO David Horton echoes that optimism, with a nod to the established physics of the company’s approach. “We weren’t coming up with new math or new phase shifters or other components that seemed to be the core holy grail of competitor products. What made this easy for us was finding the technology that existed, that was successful and proven… We haven’t had to go through four or five iterations; we were able to nail it the first time. Because the technology was proven. It’s that simple.”
An optimistic timeline, but…
As the larger panels are built they will undergo another set of tests covering performance and environmental quality. That occurs in parallel with evaluation of the manufacturing techniques. Full-scale prototypes are expected over the summer. Ultimately Newell expects production-level sub-assemblies to become available in Q4, arriving in the NXTCOMM offices for final assembly and, eventually, delivery to customers.
Exactly which customers those are, however, remains to be seen. The company makes no secret of its pursuit of multiple business lines, as Newell explains, “We’re a startup and we’re going to chase down where the dollars are coming from and right now those happen to be in defense sectors on the ground and in the air.” Moreover, Horton expects development to be “very fluid while we’re working our way through the needs of the [commercial aviation] industry timing strategies and financial recovery.”
Given that the existing antenna solutions work well enough for the satellite solutions in orbit that timing makes plenty of sense. Neither airlines nor connectivity providers are looking to transition to new phased array solutions in the next year or two. There is no compelling reason to make the shift and invest the additional cash.
Intelsat, for example, remains steadfast in its support of the Thinkom Ku3030 (aka 2Ku) antenna platform. Aviation President John Wade recently explained to PaxEx.Aero his views that “ESAs are inevitable… [But] RF performance of the 2Ku antenna is outstanding. So that means this efficiency is very high for the network utilization viewpoint. I don’t think we think the early days of ESAs are going to have the same kind of RF performance. So we think it’s going to be quite a few years before the ESAs catch up with what the ThinKom antenna can deliver today.”
While NXTCOMM might dispute how long it takes to hit that equivalence, it is clear that, at least today, commercial aviation offerings will be a secondary target for the company.
On the plus side, getting any one product line established would be a huge win for NXTCOMM and help drive the others. The sub-assemblies coming in to the company are the same, regardless of the use case. As Newell explains, “Those multiple sectors can be supported with a common panel. That’s how they go so easily between defense and aerospace needs. The PCBs look the same for everybody, but how they get packaged or finished is specific to a customer.”
Newell suggests that the models have worked so well, “I haven’t had to change any of the things that I would typically model to a customer in terms of efficiency to generate a design or to generate a quote for what their future products could look like. Those models have stayed constant through this effort because they they so closely mimic what we saw with the test sample.” That applies to both commercial aviation and defense options.
Moreover, Newell also notes that any of the defense-focused solutions built today “will certainly be the precursor elements to building up arrays that would go into aircraft” when the commercial aviation segment offerings scale up.
Scaling up, scaling out
“Now it’s about scaling, and moving on to the next phase of our development activity.” Taken in that context from Horton, the newly refreshed Board of Directors dramatically extends an already deep satellite history while bringing additional skill sets and relationships to the business.
They are very seasoned, well-rounded, outside the box thinkers and have a level of experience to understand the nuances of starting [a business], and then look at a much bigger picture. The networking ability they have to support the business and customer opportunities, the experienced manufacturing knowledge base they bring, it really bodes well for all of the challenges our business has not only in the design phase but really understanding what the satellite industry is doing. They see it, they understand it, and we couldn’t be happier to have the diversity and the skill sets that all of the board members bring to the table.
Considering the risks
The optimism is to be expected, perhaps. And while there are some risks in hitting these targets, Newell mostly believes those come in the form of a different paying customer coming along and distracting the company from its current goals. Still, he sees the timeline as “pretty reasonable” to deliver on those promises and get hardware into service.
That would be a big win in a market that has seen many promises fail to deliver over the years.
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