December 2005/January 2006 
Volume 04, Issue 8 
Industry Wrap

Fascinating fastener


Fascinating fastener Everyone knows that Velcro® is pretty amazing stuff. It's a versatile fastener that can hold just about anything and can be used over and over without losing effectiveness. Recently, engineers at the Boeing Satellite Development Center in El Segundo, Calif., found another use for it: discharging static electricity from spacecraft.

The engineers found that they could apply a conductive polymer coating to the Velcro strips that attach thermal blankets to the spacecraft, allowing the strips to bleed off electrical currents that can be harmful to spacecraft components. The specially treated Velcro replaces approximately 90 percent of the grounding wire and related hardware by doubling the duty of the Velcro.

Extending a long history of Lean successes at the Satellite Development Center, they were able to eliminate more than 6,000 of the individual parts—wires, washers and screws—that were used to ground the thermal blanket and discharge static electricity.

"Those ground wires have always been a lot of work to attach," said Carlos Pozo, a team leader on the project. "We've been looking for ways to eliminate the thousands of required connections."

Pozo and his colleagues used a new, patented process called a Controlled Resistance Conformal Coating (CRCC). The coating, developed by Boeing scientist Chris Lee, resembles a varnish but also can conduct electricity. It offers conductivity low enough to bleed off charging currents without affecting the function of the circuits.

Lee and two colleagues, Phillip Leung and Lynn Long, have worked on conductive polymers more than seven years.

"I'm very excited to see how the CRCC technology can be applied," Lee said. "I believe it will result in a big cost savings in satellite development, as well as many other applications throughout the company."

How It Works:

This is the story of how a scientific breakthrough met a common household product and became a Lean success story that helped save Boeing time and money. The common household product? Velcro. It has been used now for years to attach insulating thermal blankets to satellites. The scientific breakthrough? A conductive polymer. Until the recent advances by Boeing scientist Chris Lee and his team, polymers were nonconductive. After years of research, they came up with a polymer that could, in fact, conduct electricity.

But why is that important? Because controlling electrostatic discharge is a major requirement at the Boeing Satellite Development Center in El Segundo, Calif. These excess electrical charges are so miniscule that they can't be seen or even felt most of the time, but they can damage a satellite on the ground during testing and disable a satellite in space. Until recently, the only way to eliminate electrostatic discharge was to use grounding wires.

The ground wires carry currents extremely well, but installing them is labor-intensive. A simple coating of the Velcro—already used on satellites to attach the thermal blanket mechanically to the structure—with conductive polymer completes the grounding. The Velcro loses none of its attachment qualities while gaining the ability to dissipate static charges.

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