Viasat is known primarily as a communications company, its business built on providing satellite broadband services and secure networking systems for military and commercial markets. But the company is also an American manufacturer of communications components large and small.
Throughout its campuses, Viasat makes a wide array of highly sophisticated, specialized products. Those include the massive – from the ViaSat-3 satellite payloads built at our Tempe, AZ site and 24-meter antennas constructed on our Duluth, GA campus – to the tiny – including military radio components and systems that allow encrypted communications among warfighters.
While it doesn’t get as much time in the company spotlight, manufacturing is not an insignificant contributor to Viasat’s bottom line. Our manufacturing operations support $1 billion in product revenue, according to the 2021 annual report.
Viasat’s goal is to be vertically integrated for those products where either a merchant market of contract manufacturers does not exist or where our manufacturing processes provide us a competitive advantage (as in satellite payload manufacturing). Plus, it allows better, faster innovation since Viasat has visibility and control into almost every element along the chain.
On National Manufacturing Day, held the first Friday of October to highlight modern manufacturing, we take a closer look at some of the products Viasat creates — and where.
When it comes to Viasat manufacturing, Tempe takes home the most glamorous award. It’s where Viasat builds its most high-profile product: satellite payloads.
Viasat dramatically expanded its Arizona site beginning in 2014, building a new campus with a high bay and cleanroom labs for construction of the upcoming ViaSat-3 constellation and future satellite payloads.
In June, Viasat shipped the completed first payload from Tempe to Boeing Satellite Systems in El Segundo, CA, where it will be integrated with the rest of the spacecraft and undergo rigorous testing in preparation for launch. Tempe engineers are now on track to complete construction of the second payload, with the third expected thereafter.
Plans are already well underway for an even more advanced satellite, ViaSat-4, with other future satellites in discussion. Tempe employees also manufacture smaller space payload modules for other customers.
Manufacturing engineer Jordan Wolfley said Viasat’s manufacturing ability has grown tremendously since he joined the company in 2014.
“I’ve seen the manufacturing process go from an old building that was not purpose-built for what we’re working on to this much larger, carefully designed building with proper cleanrooms for handling space hardware and state-of-the-art lab equipment,” he said. “We have some incredible capabilities here.”
And for the type of work they’re doing, that’s important.
“Everything we make here not only has to work, it has to work perfectly the first time and every time,” he said. “You don’t get a second shot when it comes to space flight technology or the military battlefield.”
Our Georgia campus near Atlanta has a long history of manufacturing antennas – not only for Viasat but other contracted customers.
The Duluth team built the antenna systems for all ViaSat-1, ViaSat-2 and ViaSat-3 satellite gateways. They constructed the antennas that downlink virtually all the satellite imagery on today’s smartphones, including Google Maps and Google Earth. The Duluth team is also behind systems for federal intelligence agencies, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency, television broadcasters, business communications systems and many others.
They construct the airborne terminals for both commercial and government aircraft that transmit internet to commercial aircraft passengers and classified information to military and intelligence agencies.
For ViaSat-3, they’ve manufactured not only the ground stations but the radio frequency (RF) links that transmit data from the satellite to the ground and uplink data from ground back to the satellite, as well as the payload’s feed horn assemblies – which help transmit the signal from a satellite.
The team builds antennas of all sizes, from a 2.4-meter to its largest 24-meter antenna. Roughly 75 feet in diameter, the huge antenna required construction of a new pad to support its mass.
“Our customers don’t order large quantities, so we do a lot of one-offs,” said Javier Escalante, manufacturing engineering manager in Duluth. “They all have different purposes. Some are for DIRECTV; that’s one of our customers. We also have government contracts, and we even build antennas for some of our competitors.
“When you work here, you never stop learning. We keep finding new ways to build antennas. Every day you get a new requirement and a new challenge, so it’s always exciting.”
That’s recently included a carbon fiber reflector, an expensive method designed to withstand the stress of extreme cold and heat, and a design for a 30-inch aviation antenna. Duluth engineers also put their products through extensive testing, often connecting them to satellites to ensure upload and download speeds are adequate.
Antennas are typically assembled, tested, disassembled for shipping, then tested again by Viasat engineers at their destination site.
“We do a lot more than just manufacturing,” Escalante said.
Staying true to the company’s roots as a defense contractor, Viasat’s headquarters focuses its manufacturing capabilities on government products which enable warfighters to communicate with secure data.
For production supervisor Sean McElroy, the work he does feels tailormade to his talents and passions. A former Marine, he says his unit didn’t get the benefit of such advanced technology.
“I see now the communication they have, and the ability it gives them to save more lives and dominate in the air – which is what you need to win battles and wars – and it makes me happy,” he said. “I feel like I’m giving back.”