Ball Corporation has an interesting history which took the company founded in 1880 by five brothers from producing wood-jacketed tin cans to spacecraft manufacturing (http://www.ball.com/na/about-ball/overview/history-timeline). Packaging is still Ball’s main business but Ball Aerospace has become a leading company in the spacecraft manufacturing and payload development business.
I met Steven T. Harford, Manager of New Products Technology Development at Ball Aerospace, and Ball’s representative at the Colorado Space Coalition Committee. We started off the conversation talking about education and research. In his current position, Steven Harford works in close contact with universities. Ball Aerospace is making significant investments in space research of interest to the company carried out at universities, notably University of Colorado (which is a centre of excellence for aerospace engineering) and University of Arizona (which is very strong in everything that has to do with optics). Both universities do space research that is essential to Ball’s earth observation satellite and payload development business.
According to Mr Harford, there are three straightforward reasons for delegating research to universities. The first is that universities can undertake research at low TRL for a fraction of the cost that the company would incur; the company can then focus on applied research that has immediate use for its contracts. The second is that universities, through their research projects, bring in creativity and innovation contributing to reinforcing the company’s leading position. The third is that students working on these research projects are likely to become Ball’s future workforce.
Funding university research promotes Ball’s positive image as a potential employer amongst students and also gives Ball the possibility to identify the brightest students. Ball has a proactive recruitment policy; its internship programme for university undergraduates (http://www.ball.com/aerospace/about-ball-aerospace/careers/college-internships), which offers them the possibility for summer placements, is a key instrument to this policy. The internship programme has become Ball’s main recruitment channel and the necessary passageway for new graduates to work for the company.
We discussed commercial space development. Ball specialises in large, high resolution earth observation satellites and payload development whose customers are fundamentally governmental. However, commercial remote sensing development offers Ball a growing base of commercial customers for its proven instruments, spacecraft, advanced technologies and data expertise.
Steven Harford is of the opinion that the shift towards less government spending in earth observation space infrastructure and greater commercial activity in this area is not likely to have a major impact on Ball’s business. Earth observation satellites are still needed, regardless of whether it is government or businesses that buy them.
Regarding current trends in earth observation, small satellites could, in theory, pose a certain threat to Ball’s satellite high resolution business model in the medium term but this is still to be seen. Clearly there is a growing interest in temporal resolution versus optical resolution; however, high resolution is still going strong, according to Steve.
Ball is now actively seeking market opportunities abroad, notably in Asia and Latin America. These – not transatlantic trade – are the grounds for competition between European and US satellite manufacturing companies.