The space industry thrives on the word “heritage”. Relying on historical designs, equipment, processes and suppliers results in known outcomes and reduced risks in the high stakes world of rocket launches. It’s hard to compete with that logic. But that hasn’t stopped Napoleon Engineering Services (NES) from going all in to support the commercial space industry with custom bearings for a wide variety of mission critical applications from turbo pumps, values, actuators and hydraulic power units to docking systems.
The Olean, NY based custom bearing manufacturer has roots in the aircraft industry dating back to the 1990’s. That heritage has set the stage for Napoleon Engineering Services’ work in the space industry. “We started out providing bearing reverse engineering services to those looking to hold a PMA (Parts Manufacturer Approval) on type-certified aircraft and engine bearings,” explains NES President and Chief Engineer, Chris Napoleon. “Over the years, in support of our PMA and OEM customer base, we have made significant investments in manufacturing equipment, allowing NES to manufacture high precision aerospace bearings. We manufacture deep groove, angular contact and thrust ball bearings along with cylindrical, needle and thrust roller bearings for commercial and military jet engine, gearbox, auxiliary power units, and a variety of aircraft and helicopter applications.”
Although the space community generally sees themselves as different than the aircraft industry, there are a lot of similarities that Napoleon picked up on and promoted to the rapidly developing commercial space industry. “Let me first say that our modus operandi is picking up the phone in two rings. The new space market is moving fast and you can’t begin to listen to your customer’s problem, develop a solution and deliver quickly if you aren’t willing to answer the call,” states Napoleon. “It’s an area where global bearing manufacturing has hurt the design engineer. Today’s commercial space design engineers want to talk directly with people who are designing and manufacturing their bearing so they can quickly make design changes on their end. This can often make for a challenging and stressful manufacturing process since it’s common for material to be ordered, turned and heat treated ahead of final design signoff. However, the path of least resistance is not our path. We’re not afraid of obstacles. We know we are defined by the results we achieve.”
Napoleon also notes that many of the large players in the commercial space market are developing their design reliability through full scale testing. Therefore, it’s extremely important to get to test on time. That means spacecraft companies are letting NES have a lot of control over the manufacturing quality and systems. “This is where our experience in aircraft bearing manufacturing has really helped us be successful with the space community,” emphasizes Napoleon. “You’ve got to be solid with your ability to maintain traceability of raw materials and control of the manufacturing processes. This includes knowing what level of inspection and non-destructive testing is required and establishing the correct standard for quality of workmanship in order to meet the rigors of launch and space travel. You need to know what is right and then do it, even when the customer is not directly requiring you to do so.”
Ultimately, delivery of the product needs to be expedient to allow the industry to take advantage of the fast-paced market opportunities for commercial launch services and satellite systems. This isn’t always easy when the bearing solution requires unique materials and configurations that challenge the conventional manufacturing process. “In order for us to meet the demands of our customers we need to be willing to change from machining one material to another to yet another, all in the same day. We aren’t afraid of setup changes and we understand that high mix, low volume production is what our customers need,” adds Napoleon.
“We process our bearings differently than our predecessors did. We are revolutionizing the use of hard turning and milling because we are not boxed in by old equipment process constraints. We are able to design for manufacturing very difficult bearing configurations while minimizing distortion out of heat treatment and maximizing stock removal rates. This leaves us ready to finish grind in a fraction of the time it used to take. Bearing manufacturing can be tricky and challenging every step of the way but our new processes and attention to detail result in high yield rates and delivery that is very attractive to the new space community.”
NES is poised to take custom bearing manufacturing where no man has gone before with the new commercial space market. That’s not too far of a stretch based on Napoleon’s heritage.