Manufacturing quality that's out of this world – insights from robotics on Mars

Profile picture for user louis.columbus By Louis Columbus November 28, 2018
NASA's trips to Mars rank amongst the greatest robotics accomplishments in history. Their secret? It's all about quality management. IQMS' Louis Columbus breaks out four quality field lessons for manufacturers.

IQMS - Nasa team

Manufacturing teams are often called upon to pull off 'mission impossible'. At the IQMS 2018 Pinnacle User Conference, we got an up-close look at a real-life mission impossible. When it comes to sending machines to Mars, there are no do-overs.

So how did a team of NASA and JPL engineers achieve one of the greatest robotics accomplishments in history? And what can manufacturers learn from their adventures?

It all starts with quality. NASA and JPL engineers attained such outstanding quality that they blew away their performance targets. Without that, they would never have uncovered all their invaluable data about the Martian environment. That brilliant work paved the way for this week's InSight mission.

The inspiring story was told at Pinnacle by Dr. Steven Squyres’:

  • JPL & NASA engineers’ passion for quality enabled Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity to push far beyond mission boundaries and discover compelling evidence of a warmer, watery climate that included hot springs, steam vents, all conditions conducive to life.
  • Spirit and Opportunity were expected to last just 90 Martian solar days, yet they operated for an extraordinary 7,950 days on the Martian surface (21 years, five months), logging over 32 miles of exploration in their lifetimes.
  • Spirit proved its durability by operating for 2,699 Martian days, or 7 years, four months, 22 days traveling 4.8 miles across the surface of Mars.
  • Opportunity continuously operated for 5,251 days or 14 years, four months, 17 days traveling a remarkable 28.06 miles across the surface of Mars, surviving over 58 times longer than its projected lifespan.

Had either one of the rovers failed, the mission would have been severely compromised. There was very little margin for error – a challenge today’s manufacturers can relate to.

Four quality lessons from Mars for Earth's manufacturers

Quality is the cornerstone and catalyst of manufacturing’s strong global growth today. Investing in and excelling at quality opens new markets and wins new customers. The quality that JPL and NASA engineers and scientists achieved unlocked the secrets of Mars’ fascinating past. They discovered Mars had been a very warm, humid, and in many places, a watery planet that had all the attributes of a climate capable of support microbial life.

Dr. Squyres’ keynote, The Mars Project: How Design & Innovation Got Us There provides insights for manufacturers on how a relentless pursuit of quality opens new opportunities. Key lessons learned from Dr. Squyres’ keynote include the following:

1. A passion for quality makes boundaries disappear. Once on the Martian surface, Spirit and Opportunity were able to go much farther than mission planners had originally planned, exploring much further than expected. Spirit would go on to travel 4.8 miles over the surface and capture 124,000 images of the Martian landscape, performing countless explorations, samplings, and spectrometer analyses.

Opportunity would travel over 28 miles, survive a Martian dust storm, collect and analyze tens of thousands of soil samples using spectrometry and infrared sensors, and even examine its own discarded heat shield so engineers could learn from its design and use.

2. Equipping Spirit and Opportunity with Artificial Intelligence (AI) to sense and navigate around obstacles scaled the mission faster than expected. Instead of having scientists attempt to interpret the Martian landscape and navigate it, both rovers are equipped with AI capability so they can evaluate the relative risk of each potential route across the surface.

Risk levels can be programmed depending on terrain, further enabling mission scientists to allow the rovers to find the optimal path to their next destination. AI freed up time for engineers and scientists to interpret and analyze inbound data faster, leading to more discoveries.

3. Relentless testing before a product launch delivers unforeseen and exceptionally positive dividends later in the mission. Deploying parachutes followed by a short burst from small rockets to slow the descent, ending with Spirit and Opportunity having a complex of airbags deployed that made them bounce across the Martian surface is how they landed.

Only after thousands of shredded parachutes, crushed and punctured airbags, and crashed test modules did the team get just the right sequence and strength of materials defined. The teams figured out the parachute problems with just eight months to go before launch. Both rovers landed without incident, leaving bounce marks across the Martian surface Spirit and Opportunites’ cameras would later capture, showing just how valuable all the relentless testing had been.

4. Anticipate the most challenging use cases you’ll encounter and give engineers and scientists the freedom to solve them. Both rovers can traverse uneven, rocky train using the Rocker-Bogie Mobility System; an invention specifically designed for robotic rovers to traverse diverse Martian landscapes. Getting engineers to balance the complex challenges they were trying to solve with scientists’ need for greater mobility, diversity of data sets and landing accuracy led to an organizational structure that clearly defined every person’s role.

That’s apparent from how well every subsystem and aspect of the two robotic rovers work with one another. Quality unified the diverse teams that delivered Spirit and Opportunity, making it possible to discover more about Mars than ever before.

Fortunately, when a shop floor machine breaks down, we don’t have to send signals across the galaxy and hope for the best. But when it comes to quality, the lessons from Spirit and Opportunity are abundant. Technology is only as strong as our weakest testing link. The more we treat our quality mission with the same rigor as Dr. Squyres and team, the better our results will be.

If you'd like to delve further into our field lessons on applying quality management to your project, check out our new ebook, How to Build a Quality Product Roadmap.

End note: obviously this was a big week for NASA's Martian missions, with the successful landing of InSight marking the first Mars landing in six years. Congratulations to NASA, and check the updates on the mission here.