Their products have been to Mars and will also travel to distant Jupiter. Today, Brno-based Frentech Aerospace is one of the most successful Czech companies operating in the space industry and continues to accept new challenges. “Working in the space industry is interesting for us – it is a prestigious sector that builds on international cooperation,” says Pavel Sobotka, Frentech’s CEO.
Originally, Frentech Aerospace manufactured components for measurement and laboratory systems. How did you get from these technologies to the aviation and space industries?
It all started with a visit by gentlemen from Airbus sometime around 1997 and as a result, we gradually started to supply aircraft components. So as you can see, it all happened more or less by accident. Airbus was then looking for a subcontractor, and to this day I don’t know how they came across our company. In those days, almost nobody used the Internet, so they just sent an enquiry by post. Frentech Aerospace had no programme, ambitions and plans to enter the aviation industry, so we were quite surprised. So, in a way, what we do today has happened by chance.
Your personal story is also interesting – starting as a shop floor worker, you have grown into the position of a Managing Director of a successful company. To what extent do you use your practical knowledge and experience in your current role?
Without my experience as a worker, I would be a mere manager today, which would be rather pitiful – I would have a very shallow understanding of the matters I decide on and wouldn’t know much about production. In my opinion, every person in a position of a director should have a practical experience and knowledge of their field of business. Mr Baťa started with making shoes as well, and because of his manufacturing experience he understood the business and succeeded in what he was doing. I believe that a lot of managers lack practical knowledge and thus do a lot of damage not only to themselves but also to their employers.
Now to the present. In your presentation during the company open day, you revealed that the space industry accounted for nearly half of Frentech Aerospace’s turnover in 2018. Isn’t it a bit risky?
Yes, I admit that such a large share of the space industry in our production is risky. In line with the increased proportion of the space business in total turnover, the percentage of absolute sales has also increased. However, the fact that we invest so much in this area is certainly positive. In the future, we could even increase the space industry contribution to total turnover, but we would need to know the risks involved so that we can secure project financing and manage the projects well in terms of both technology and skills. There is a shortage of skills in the market; it is not enough to design processes, someone has to do the actual work on the shop floor. There are limits in this respect, so we do not plan any further major leaps regarding the turnover. The proportion of the space industry may even decrease, as it is sometimes necessary to adapt to market environment regardless of what we may wish.
Do space projects make economic sense at all?
For us, participation in space industry projects is interesting for many reasons. It involves engineering, we participate in the development, and moreover, this is a very prestigious industry that builds on international cooperation; we are partners to major companies with a proven track record. Plus, of course, we create work with high added value and the return on investment is very fast. It is also important to say that we are direct partners, we are not subcontractors in the supply chain, such as in the automotive sector. This is rare in today’s industry. The space sector has clear rules of the game, no one grabs you by the throat, you don’t have to dance to someone else’s tune – that is a big difference compared to other industries. To cut it short, everyone works together as equal partners in the space industry. Which means that we also share the risks; this work requires a high level of responsibility. Each contract involves large amounts of money, which may perhaps seem inconceivable for some. Even individual product components are extremely expensive, and potential penalties are very high.
What is the current largest space project for Frentech Aerospace?
We have just finished very big projects recently, but we’re still working on Meteostat Third Generation (MTG). Within this project, we deliver subsystems for MTG satellites, i.e. cryostats to be specific. Furthermore, we started an innovative project with L.K Engineering, focusing on a new principle of motorization for solar panel deployment. We cooperate with Sobriety on two development projects, i.e. on electrical valves for the Vega rocket and on electrical pumps for rocket engines. Sobriety develops and designs them, we are in charge of production and integration, and together we will do the testing. There is another project at this very moment, but I can’t talk about it yet. Our biggest commercial contract so far has been for the Iridium Next project, within which we produced and delivered 81 satellite mechanisms.
As part of the ExoMars 2016 mission, your components flew to Mars, but the landing was very hard. The next attempt will follow next year, under the name ExoMars 2020. What have you added to this project?
Specifically for the EXOMARS 2020 mission to Mars, we delivered Canister flight models to store the main and reserve parachutes for the landing module. In other words, a container for two parachutes whose lid must open before the module hits the surface of the planet. The parachutes must open at sufficient height, so the mechanism is quite important for the success of the whole project. We delivered the flight model for this project early this year, specifically at the end of January 2019.
Frentech Aerospace is heading not just to Mars, but much further. Your products should be amongst those embarking on the journey to Jupiter. What does your participation in this project involve?
Within this project we first supply parts for the Spanish company Sener, which makes the so-called MAG BOOM. This is a three segment boom whose deployed length is 10.6 m, which will carry magnetic field measuring instruments, and we will supply titanium parts for it. Second, in cooperation with Brno L.K. Engineering we design, manufacture and install mechanisms for the RIME Antenna module.
At the Frentech Aerospace Open Day, visitors could see, through the glass, specifically designed clean rooms meeting extremely strict cleanliness requirements. Why is such a degree of cleanliness required for your production?
Companies operating in the space sector can’t assemble products in places with a lot of contaminants, otherwise they would not be able to guarantee the functionality of the mechanisms. Special gloves are required for any component, mechanism and tool handling. Under no circumstances can these be touched by bare hands to prevent possible corrosion and contamination by grease or other particulates. Our cleanrooms have been certified to meet two cleanliness levels, ISO7 and ISO5. In some cases, we handle components designed for optical instruments, for which cleanliness is top priority. If they are contaminated even by a tiny particle, the entire mission could be devalued. Optical systems require the ISO5 level that guarantees that the permitted level of both particulate and molecular contamination is not exceeded. These are the reasons why the company invested in building new clean rooms where strict conditions are in place for cleanliness, temperature and humidity.
Your products must clearly undergo extensive testing as there is no room for error in space projects. How many types of tests do you have to complete and where do you do them?
It really varies. Components usually require geometric testing, cleaning or degassing, carried out in a thermal vacuum chamber. Then we also have parts that require thermal tests for surface treatment adhesion. We also test mechanisms in standard environment, do service life tests and thermal tests in cold environment as well as vibration or functional testing. All mechanisms must meet the required parameters. In any case, functional tests of mechanisms are the most extensive. Generally, testing is expensive; it is necessary to simulate as best as possible potential situations that may occur in space.
Theoretically speaking, what would happen if one of your parts demonstrably breaks down in space? Would you face major fines or any other difficulties?
Fortunately, nothing like this has ever happened and to tell the truth, I can’t even imagine it. It would depend on who would caused the problem, they would have to bear full responsibility. Naturally, the integrator gets paid for the project only once everything works as it should. I have no idea what the course of action would be in case of malfunctioning but the penalty would be immense. There are certain insurance policies, but our company’s policy would not cover the cost of paying the entire satellite. I can’t imagine such a situation and we must do all we can to prevent it, in any circumstance. It is also for these reasons that working on space projects bears a great amount of risk. On the other hand, risks are simulated and addressed in the early stages of project preparation.
The role of Czech companies in the space industry has increased. What do you think of this development? Was it just a matter of time as the Czech Republic has been accumulating wide-ranging experience in this sector for quite some time?
First of all it must be said that we still have a lot to learn – other European countries, such as Germany and France, are well ahead of the Czech Republic. However, we have done a lot of work over the last ten years. In terms of technological processes, we communicate with others at a very high level. Other countries have come to see that we have some very good skills and technical experience, as has been well demonstrated. I believe that our international partners regard the Czech space industry very highly, and projects completed by Czech companies clearly demonstrate the high level of our competence and capability.
How does Frentech Aerospace work with other Czech companies from the space industry?
The cooperation is very intensive. It helps a lot that many companies involved in space activities are incidentally located, just like us, in Brno or nearby. These include L.K.Engineering, Sobriety, 5M and BD SENSORS, with whom we have established the informal Brno Space Technology Group (BSTG). As a group, we can jointly offer better capabilities and are able to offer a comprehensive approach to space projects. I would like to highlight the fact that only Czech-owned companies are members of the BGST – the idea is to further boost the Czech space industry.
What objective do you personally have for your company to achieve in the space industry?
We would like to gradually progress to a higher degree of integration. This means developing more sophisticated subsystems, perhaps equipped with electronics, in order to produce more complex and more comprehensive modules. Achieving this objective will not be easy, but I hope that, step by step and with a bit of luck we will succeed. However, any further development needs skilled workforce. Skilled resources are scarce in the labour market and trying to find high-quality new people is a difficult, hard every-day task. We try to support new co-workers so that they achieve good results. However, this issue has a far-reaching context, including changes in education, thinking of politicians etc. We have to work with what is available. Another concern is the loss of experience when people retire, and the need to start from scratch; we spend a lot of energy and money on restoring that experience.
You yourself have been working (not only) in the industry for decades. What motivates you to carry on after all this time?
I believe I have a good understanding of what I do because all my life I have been doing what I had been trained for and I still enjoy it, so I have no reason to step back. Secondly, I have a lot of capable people around me, who are a joy to work with – both in our company and in the companies of our partners and customers. The negatives that we spoke about aside, the work I do is really nice. The pros continue to prevail and it’s worth to carry on.
Interviewed by: Martin Schwarz
Translation: Romana Moareš
Photo: Jan Pirgl for Aerospace magazine