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I recently spoke with James Hofer, general manager of Accurate Circuit Engineering, about a customer appreciation plaque the company was awarded from JPL for their work on NASA’s Integrated Solar Array and Integrated Solar Array and Reflectarray Antenna (ISARA). James talks about some of the challenges of the project and the role ACE played in developing the ISARA that is now orbiting the Earth.
Andy Shaughnessy: Hi, James. I see you have a shiny plaque from JPL. Tell us about that. I don’t see a lot of JPL awards.
James Hofer: We were told by JPL (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) that this was the first customer appreciation plaque that they’ve awarded to a vendor. They recently got approval from NASA to do so, and we were the first ones to win an award. This came from working with the ISARA project and the SWOT program.
We worked for approximately a year and a half on the ISARA project, through many revisions of the design, utilizing different materials and manufacturing processes. It was really nice working closely with a couple of rocket scientists. We are very proud of how we build our boards. There’s a picture on Facebook of the rocket going up with our antenna array on it, and it’s floating around in space right now, sending information to JPL daily.
The award shows the project manager’s appreciation to several people—among them was Accurate Circuit Engineering. We worked very closely between the three of us to get this project off the ground, so to speak.
Shaughnessy: What kind of board was it? It sounds like a high-tech operation.
Hofer: It was. It’s a rather small board, but it utilized a carbon fiber in the center of a Rogers material. I can’t go into too much detail because it’s under NDA, but the material had to be specially made and processed. It was sent to a third party to get laminated with the carbon fiber material in the middle, but there were many challenges—not the least of which were CTEs, warpage, and protection from the solar energy, while also allowing it to absorb that energy without burning up the board. We worked through those challenges together very closely, and I’m very proud of the work we did because it was really outside-of-the-box thinking. I love this award and want to display it at all times; I don’t let it out of my sight.
Shaughnessy: You said you didn’t check it in your baggage for your flight.
Hofer: I carried the plaque on the plane and up to my room each night and back to the booth because it’s something that money can’t buy.
Shaughnessy: What’s the purpose of the carbon fiber in the middle of the board?
Hofer: It was for heat distribution.
Shaughnessy: They probably don’t tell you everything that you’d like to know.
Hofer: And some things that they did tell me I can’t share.
Shaughnessy: That’s true. That sounds like that would be a problem if you have an FR-4 and then a layer of carbon fiber. How do you even manufacture that without warping or twisting it, or shorting it throughout the board?
Hofer: Every plated through-hole can connect to that heat sink and possibly short the board. The challenge they had is that as it rotates, it’s in and out of the sun, so it needs to absorb as much of the energy and hold that to keep it energized until it re-orbits during the sun again.
Naturally, we went through challenges with solder mask, including how long the solder mask could withstand the heat of the sun and what sort of protectants we could put on top of this solder mask to protect it. There were a lot of interesting steps along the way, and it was fascinating. It was a learning situation for me, the team at Accurate, and the rocket scientists, as well.
Shaughnessy: How many layers did the board have?
Hofer: It was eight active layers, not including the carbon fiber portion. It is very cool, and I’m proud to say that I worked with rocket scientists; when I went home after work, I’d tell the family that.
Shaughnessy: Besides that project, are you keeping busy?
Hofer: We are. We have developed a new process that will soon be patented. We are really excited about that. There will be more to come on that later.
Shaughnessy: Sounds like you all are having a pretty good year.
Hofer: Absolutely. Right now, everything is about specializing in RF microwave and antenna, getting it there faster and with a clear signal. I also can’t tell you how many companies are trying to get the latest and greatest autonomous vehicle radar and all the players in 5G technology. We’re proud to be a part of all of that.
Shaughnessy: Great. Thanks for talking to me, James, and congratulations on the award from JPL.
Hofer: Thank you.