The European Space Agency on Reliability


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Matties: They design it and they engineer it and you just buy it? Is that how it works?

Heltzel: It’s a bit more complicated than that. There are space projects, some are done by ESA, and ESA issues contracts for those space projects. Those contracts include somewhere in the supply chain that some supplier will manufacture the equipment that will eventually be built into a satellite. That equipment manufacturer is responsible for procuring the PCBs. My job is independent from those space projects. I have the general support function just for the PCB technology.

Matties: I see. What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve seen in your career? The thing that made you say, “I can’t believe they did this,” or “We should’ve done it that way.”

Heltzel: I think the lesson that has been learned is the fact that the standard we’ve been using in space was allowed to be outdated. That causes some problems. We had to provide maintenance in the form of memoranda. It’s a European industry standard, but that standard was allowed to be slightly outdated because when PCB technology increased in terms of ability, the standard was not in sync with that capability and of course with the new capabilities, you get different failure modes. The fact that this is now being revised will be a major milestone.

Matties: How long does it take you to revise the standard and make it become live?

Heltzel: This one has now been running for two years.

Matties: So it’s quite a process. It seems rather long, doesn’t it? If it’s something outdated to begin with...

Heltzel: Yes, but then after that, I expect it will be up-to-date for many years. The industry in space isn’t changing that quickly—it is still quick but not as quick as an iPhone.

Matties: Which is more powerful than our first rocket ship that went to space, I think.

Heltzel: In terms of computing power, yes.

Matties: There’s something odd about that. Is there anything that circuit board fabricators should know?

Heltzel: We rely on them to do their own quality control and we will check and jump in where needed. Also, if they need us or need a bigger expertise, if they don’t have resources, we are there to support them. When I say ‘we’ I am talking about the full supply chain, but in the end it is their responsibility to make sure that the reliability of their product is good and they should have the resources available.

Matties: Thinking about the laminate, are you specifying material or do you leave that entirely up to your contractor as well?

Heltzel: The original design for the qualified stackup is up to the industry to select, but once it’s selected it’s cast in stone. It gets written up in the process identification document and that

cannot be changed without performing the qualification work.

Matties: Thanks for spending time for this interview. I appreciate it.


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of The PCB Magazine.

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