By Eric Peterson | Apr 19, 2021
RF antennas, solar arrays, and other deployable systems for spacecraft
Wiens cites "an entrepreneurial bug" as the impetus for starting an aerospace design and manufacturing business after working for Ball Aerospace and Starsys (now part of Sierra Nevada Corporation's Space Systems).
"I was looking to be more impactful," he says of the move. "I really felt a small company was a better fit for me," says Wiens. "That was the case at Starsys. As VP of programs, it grew from around 25 people to well over 100 people by the time I left. I really enjoyed that process of building a company."
The company's name, shorthand for Moving Mechanical Assemblies, reflects the focus on "anything that moves" on a spacecraft since day one, says Wiens. "The Cubesat environment was just starting then," he adds. "There was change coming, and I could see that we couldn't do it the way it had always been done."
The first MMA Design product to take flight, the dragNET De-orbit System aims to clean up space junk that's slowly but surely returning to the Earth. Wiens describes the product as a "drag chute" that allows spacecraft to deorbit. "You can attach it to a spacecraft -- especially spacecraft with its own propulsion system -- to get it out of orbit at the end of life," he explains. "It's a lot of spent launch-vehicle stages that don't have the ability to get down. . . . All you have to do is change their ballistic coefficient -- have a bigger drag area."
In the years since, the company's growth has been tied into the aforementioned small satellite revolution. "We look at anything that moves on a spacecraft," says Wiens. "Every spacecraft needs a solar array. . . . Every spacecraft typically has multiple antennas on it."
Membrane technology became a forte for MMA after the success of the dragNET. In 2012, the company embarked on R&D for membrane-based antennas. "Most of the antenna solutions are either rigid or dishes," says Wiens, calling membrane-based systems "a much more flexible architecture."
"On a big spacecraft -- a geosynchronous-orbit spacecraft -- they deploy a big dish that's bigger than your DishTV dish, because the spacecraft are just monstrous," he continues. "If you want something close to equivalent in a small sat, it necessitates deployment. It becomes a critical capability."
These products dovetail into the trend of continued miniaturization of satellites. "Being able to put something that deploys really big but packaging it really small is enabling," Wiens explains. "Instead of launching a much larger spacecraft that we would have done in the past, we can now put a similar capability on a much smaller vehicle, which brings down cost and allows you to fit more spacecraft on a launch vehicle."
For manufacturing, MMA Design works with a network of vendors while handling many processes internally. "We have very critical in-house capability for precision machining," says Wiens. "We also have in-house composite capabilities that are growing and certainly critical to our success."
QA is another key in-house function, he adds. "We test the hell out of it on the ground to make sure that it's going to do what we want it to do and we don't get surprised by anything."
Beyond its own production floor, MMA works with Colorado-based contract manufacturers as well as partners across the U.S. and a few international suppliers. "We can't do everything, of course, so we have to leverage the capacity and capability of outside sources as well," says Wiens.
After it got established in the market, MMA Design saw annual revenue triple between 2016 and 2020. "A lot of our work is government-based, so our growth follows how the government funds things," says Wiens. Non-government customers include Raytheon Technologies, First RF Corporation, Honeybee Robotics, and Millennium Space Systems.
While the company's products go to space, Wiens says he likes to keep MMA firmly grounded on Earth: "We're a values-driven company. It's not cliché -- we want to be involved in having an impact worldwide."
Challenges: "There has been some consolidation in the small-sat arena, like Blue Canyon [being] bought by Raytheon, so there's change in the competitive landscape," says Wiens. "They get more deep-pocketed, and we're a company that's bootstrapped itself from the get-go."
Opportunities: There's an opportunity for MMA to grow production as constellations with numerous small satellites become increasingly common. "Production ends up being a bigger component for the future," says Wiens. "I see an opportunity where we're doing 20 or 50 or 100 units."
"Antenna solutions and mission payloads that use our antenna solutions, I see that continuing to grow," says Wiens. "That's been a big growth area for us since 2016 and I think it will continue to drive our growth for the foreseeable future."
Wiens says MMA Design is also seeing an increasing amount of work on terrestrial projects like portable weather radar systems. "We're looking to grow our business into the terrestrial marketplace and partnering with other companies to do that," says Wiens. "While the challenges are similar to a space environment . . . If you've got to put something on a Humvee, it's a pretty rugged environment it has to be able to handle -- vibration, et cetera. It's not unlike launching something into space."
Needs: To scale to higher-volume production in coming years, MMA Design will need more space and employees, including mechanical engineers, machinists, and assembly technicians. "In aerospace, the labor market is tighter," says Wiens. "We want to continue to get great talent. People first is our creed -- they're a critical asset of course for everything that we do. You can't be creative and innovative without people that can drive that engine."
The company will also need to expand its facility to about 40,000 square feet as it scales manufacturing operations to meet the needs of constellations. "We're going to need more facility space to do that," says Wiens. "In the next two or three years, we'll certainly have to double our space from where we're at right now."