Alberto Robles
Latam Strategic Supply Chain Manager
General Electric Infrastructure Queretaro
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Expert Contributor

Space Supply Chain Management: Pushing Boundaries Beyond Earth

By Alberto Robles | Wed, 12/02/2020 - 09:00

Space exploration has always been a passion of mine. It is incredible to see how technology advancement and advanced engineering have enabled the world to push the boundaries of humanity in seeking the unknown, but at the same time, we have realized how insignificant we are in the vastness of the universe. 

However, our curiosity has fueled our interest in getting to know what is out there, and our ambition has brought to light our greatest desire to conquer space in all possible ways. The space race is not new, but the access that we have to cutting-edge technology, human capital and the entrepreneurial spirit of several individuals is changing the way we see ourselves on Earth and that’s why we are starting to see concrete actions toward becoming an interplanetary species.

Man first landed on the surface of the moon in 1969. Now, history repeats and Mars is our next target. Today’s promise is to colonize Mars but also to develop a permanent moon base as a stepping stone to get to the red planet.

Colonizing Mars will require a huge amount of effort on different fronts, but it will unleash great growth potential for commercial and defense space technologies and for the creation of new industries.

Just to give a little bit of perspective on what the space industry represents in numbers, the global space economy was worth an estimated of $US340 billion in 2015. Most budgets come from commercial revenue followed by 25 percent from government budgets.

The commercial space economy is dominated by satellite services such as television, broadband connections, mobile asset tracking and communications. Additionally, commercial space also includes human space flights, mining and manufacturing. 

On the government side, I think budgets will start to increase globally, especially in highly developed economies and countries. The dominance of space will represent a great competitive advantage from a defense and national security perspective.

According to some experts and authors, the most developed economies in the world may start focusing on energy production from space to provide power on Earth. Substantial infrastructure could be created, giving these countries a great global advantage.

Building on that infrastructure, those countries could develop new defense capabilities and could conduct their battles from beyond Earth. This may represent an important evolution of space warfare with the introduction of new generations of weapons managed from space. 

To achieve those plans, we would need to rethink the way we do “traditional” supply chain management. While the core of logistics remains pretty much the same regardless of if you are on Earth or in space, extremely stringent environmental conditions and many other constraints will challenge the way we store, transport and deliver products and materials beyond Earth.

Supplying cargo will be crucial if we want to expand human presence beyond our planet. Fuel, provisions, materials and equipment will need to be transported to space and in some cases, brought back down to Earth. 

We need to be aware that from a business perspective we will face the challenge of extremely high costs due to limited space and weight capacity on rockets and shuttles. In this case, we can’t take advantage of economies of scale like we do when we use ships to cruise the oceans with tons of products and materials. 

Additionally, supply networks will need to be planned in a way that products can survive zero-gravity, extreme temperatures and high radiation conditions.

Despite all the challenges mentioned above, there is great excitement in the private and public sectors and several companies are proposing reusable and bigger transport vehicles so they can hold more cargo and significantly drive down operational costs.

Technologies like additive manufacturing will also be crucial to simplify supply networks and to significantly reduce costs and cycle times. For example, having a 3D printer on Mars would enable the teams there to produce critical parts that in other circumstances must be procured from Earth.

Space exploration as described in this article will require interplanetary supply chain management. Future exploration will rely on a very complex network on Earth and beyond Earth. At the core, the principles may remain the same as the traditional approach to supply chain management; however, there are too many variables and complications that need to be considered, and a revised framework may be required for current and future supply chain professionals.

As an optimist, I think a great deal can be done in Mexico if we continue to develop our domestic aerospace supply chain and industry, but it will require global collaboration and a coordinated effort between academia and the private and public sectors, a long-term vision and public policy that fosters research and development, and private and public investment that would enable our country to access the latest state-of-the-art technologies and the resources to create our next success story.

Photo by:   Alberto Robles