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Preparing for Launch of an Aerospace Business

Aerospace startups, even more so than other companies, benefit from a holistic approach to planning and site selection.

2021 Auto/Aero Site Guide
A company that produces flying taxis 
may need to be in a region with clear airspace.
A company that produces flying taxis may need to be in a region with clear airspace.
Fueled by an explosion of technological innovation and entrepreneurial enthusiasm, dozens of new space and aerospace startups are coming online each year. Such is the power of brilliant people with big ideas.

From small electric-powered aircraft, some with vertical takeoff and landing abilities, to space planes that take off from ordinary runways before hybrid rocket engines launch them into space, these inventions are no longer the stuff of science fiction. They are real, spectacular, and ushering in new approaches to travel and space exploration.

While brimming with true geniuses, early-stage space and aerospace startups may not yet fully appreciate how their operational planning intertwines with capital planning. Investing in resources that can help them identify their facility needs, set realistic goals, and develop schedules and budgets for the design and construction (or leasing) of facilities is critical for startups’ long-term success.

By translating a startup’s technical needs and ambitions into a master plan, an integrated team of planners, site selection professionals, engineers, and constructors can develop site selection criteria and, in some cases, design and construct the adaptable and sustainable facilities needed to turn the entrepreneur’s vision into reality. These preplanning activities are also enormously instructive to the economic development organizations, developers, and investors whose support they also need. In fact, the results of such activities can be a deciding factor as these stakeholders choose which startups to court.

Master Planning Issues
Should an aerospace startup build its own facilities on a greenfield site or lease space from an existing facility? Should it look into the new and emerging world of spaceports? Will its facilities be used for product manufacturing or assembly, or perhaps both? Does it make better economic sense to manufacture some parts off-site through contract manufacturers and only assemble on-site?

What are the startup’s production goals for the next one, five, and 10 years? What about its sustainability goals? Can it secure the tens of millions of dollars or more it may take to construct its own production facility while it gathers seed funding for its actual product?

These are just a few of the many questions that startups need to consider as they plan their operations. Finding answers takes an understanding of supply chains, distribution channels, workforce requirements, and labor and materials costs, among other issues. The decisions startups make can significantly shape their facility footprint and space needs.

A master planning team can methodically guide them through the process for determining the kinds of spaces and rooms their facility will need. Some may want on-site 3D printing to manufacture significant components. Others may need a paint booth and multiple clean rooms. Some will need available airspace and/or a runway. Startups working on certain projects for the government may need a small ICD 705 secure room/network. Many may know exactly what the production of their product requires; others may need help in developing a production process.

Once the process and spaces are defined, designers can apply lean methods to optimize them and make the most efficient use of space. The list of building criteria they create will be vital during the site selection process. The overall master plan, meanwhile, can become part of the business plan presented to potential investors and the space and aerospace community.

The overall master plan can become part of the business plan presented to potential investors and the space and aerospace community. Site Selection Issues
An operation’s facilities requirements are particularly valuable when identifying and evaluating potential sites. Once on paper, it may become clear whether an existing facility, spaceport, or development meets a startup’s needs, precluding the need to build new. Or it might point to a particular region of the country in which to begin the search.

For example, consider a startup developing a new kind of supersonic aircraft. Known for the loud sonic booms they create, these aircraft have been banned from flying at supersonic speeds over U.S. land since 1973. Even with small supersonic corridors now allowed above certain regions of California and Kansas, flight-testing options remain limited. When choosing the location for a production facility, site selectors may consider how that regulation impacts flight testing. For these aircraft to reach airspace above international waters in minutes, a coastal corridor with proximity to an ocean and international waters is essential.

Startups seeking to build rocket planes or launch small satellites into space, on the other hand, may gravitate toward NASA launch sites or commercial spaceports with the capabilities to accommodate these highly specialized needs. These locations may also attract a critical mass of aerospace companies, tech-savvy workforces, and suppliers, adding to their desirability. Nearby colleges and trade schools can also be a plus for recruitment purposes.

Other unique concerns may also impact site selection. Some aircrafts may require extended runways that are longer than those sometimes found at former military bases or spaceports. A company that produces flying taxis may need to be in a region with clear airspace.

Given ongoing consolidation in the aerospace and defense industries, startups may also find they can buy or lease cleanrooms and other specialty manufacturing space at a good price from companies seeking to right-size their operations. Others may be better served by working with a developer on a greenfield site. The important thing is that decisions are based on facts and data.

Planning Ahead
No matter how humble their origins or revolutionary their ideas, space and aerospace startups share a common reality: Their futures depend on their ability to grow. Expandability, in other words, should be factored into every facility plan. Operations should be designed with both current and future production goals in mind. Aerospace facility design must be adaptable, sustainable, and expandable.

Space and aerospace startups share a common reality: Their futures depend on their ability to grow. That does not mean getting ahead of itself. A startup that intends to build 50 articles per month in year 10 would be unwise to build a facility with that capacity when it only builds five per month today. Excess capacity is not a good investment of early capital. Such a company would be better served with an adaptable design. With this approach, utilities, loading docks, walls, and rooflines can all be laid out with expansion in mind. Movable walls, space for additional chillers and cleanrooms, and other adaptions in the original design will make the addition of another production bay at a later date easier and less costly.

Sustainability goals can also impact design in the master-planning process. Solar panels can offset purchased electricity, reducing the carbon impact, but if the manufacturing process itself relies heavily on fossil fuels like natural gas, the ability to achieve sustainability goals will be impacted. Office amenity designs, similarly, may be driven by the workforce the startup seeks to attract and retain, as these companies wrestle with other companies that offer expanded cafeterias, lounge spaces, and even nap pods.

The Bottom Line
Space and aerospace startups that take a holistic approach to planning the operations side of their business make good targets for economic development organizations and developers. In an increasingly crowded field, they’re often the ones best-positioned for success.

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