H Space Man

Smart manufacturing in space?

June 29, 2023
"In the future, we anticipate that every company will be a space company."

We recently covered the  new report from Deloitte Consulting, which claims that organizations across a wide range of industries—transportation, finance, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, research and communications, among others—that have never been viewed as space pioneers are teed up for opportunities and disruption. Space is becoming big business for smart manufacturers.

We wanted to learn more, so we connected with Mike Bechtel, chief futurist and managing director, Deloitte Consulting LLP. Take a look…

Smart Industry: Define your role as a futurist with Deloitte?

Mike: People wonder if futurists have crystal balls or time machines. But in fact, what we have is more like a wide-angle lens. We can’t see the future directly, but we’ve found that there are people across industries and geographies who are building facets of the future today. By looking broadly, we can get an idea of what tomorrow will look like.

Smart Industry: What is the crux of the SpaceTech Report?

Mike: In the future, we anticipate that every company will be a space company. You may not be building rockets, or planning to send people to Mars, but regardless of the industry you’re in, you have a lot to gain from the burgeoning space economy. Accessing satellites and the troves of data they provide has never been easier. Whether you’re in agriculture and want to monitor crop yields or you’re in retail and want better visibility into your supply chain, satellite data can be a game-changer. Further on, we expect to see innovations developed specifically for the space industry trickle out into the broader economy. The space industry is growing at such a rapid rate that every business should expect to be impacted in some way, and sooner than they may currently suspect.

Smart Industry: Why / how is space an emerging market?

Mike: Public space agencies helped kickstart the space economy by opening up launch to private companies. These companies have found there’s lots of money to be made in carrying space agencies’ astronauts and payloads to space. But the emergence of private launch providers has also helped open access to launch services to more industries than ever before. The number of businesses putting satellites into orbit is exploding and the potential to leverage those satellites for tangible benefits to terrestrial businesses is huge. In that way, the emerging space market is growing in two directions: first in the expansion of companies providing space-based products and services, and second in the new opportunities for Earth-based businesses to capture value created in space.

Smart Industry: How can space be leveraged to power business value in the manufacturing sector?

Mike: Space offers a unique environment for R&D and manufacturing of products used both in space and on Earth. For example, microgravity makes it possible to engineer spacecraft parts like mirrors and lenses with greater precision. Microgravity can also help minimize defects in the production of pharmaceuticals and stem cell-based personalized medicine. And the cold temperatures and intense radiation beyond Earth’s atmosphere could allow companies to test components that will need to withstand extreme conditions on Earth. A number of private companies are currently developing plans for private space stations that will provide the capacity for more manufacturing businesses to engineer, test and build products in space.

Smart Industry: Is there actually value in asteroids? 

Mike: You may get different answers to this depending on whom you ask. There are undoubtedly valuable materials in asteroids, from precious metals like platinum to rare Earth elements like yttrium and lanthanum, which play important roles in electronics, to name just a few. Retrieving those materials is the challenge. Doing so would require either deep-space mining operations or pulling an asteroid closer to Earth to be processed in orbit. There have been a couple successful attempts to collect small amounts of material from asteroids, but the technology doesn’t currently exist to do so at scale or profitably. Still, the potential is tantalizing. We’ve already seen asteroid-mining startups secure substantial funding, but we’ve also already seen some of those startups fail. The challenges involved are overwhelming. But if anyone is able to crack the problem, the rewards could be huge.

Smart Industry: Last question / big picture...what does the future of space-connected manufacturing look like?

Mike: In the near term, the story of manufacturing in space is likely to focus on research and development. The International Space Station has already proven the value of off-world experiments and applicability of their findings back on Earth. Microgravity in orbit is conducive to processes as disparate as producing silicon carbide wafers with fewer impurities to printing human organs. Down the line, in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) is poised to expand what’s possible for space operations by enabling the manufacturing of structures—from habitats to telescopes—completely in space. Ultimately, it’s likely that many industries will find that space, in one way or another, becomes integral to their supply chains.