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Flextronics flexes its prowess

Company’s Valencia location produced the electronic sensors for 47 actuators to help move Mars rover

Posted: August 30, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 30, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Employees of the Flextronics’ Valencia location gather at their office in Valencia on Monday. Employees of the Flextronics’ Valencia location gather at their office in Valencia on Monday.
Employees of the Flextronics’ Valencia location gather at their office in Valencia on Monday.

When NASA’s rover, Curiosity, began to explore its new home on Mars last week, local electronics manufacturer Flextronics let out a sigh of relief.

The Valencia location produced the electronic sensors for 47 actuators — motorized mechanisms that help control and move Curiosity — so the rover can perform tasks using movable joints. And, the sensors manufactured by Flextronics are busy providing performance feedback.

Employees actually built some 60 units, said Annie Eitman, business development coordinator. While 47 are on Curiosity, the remaining 13 were used for tests and the mock up unit.

Asked why the company waited to release the news, Eitman said the company waited for Curiosity to begin moving and doing its work to make sure everything was working once the rover landed safely.

And operating on Mars is no simple task.

The sensors, called cold encoders, had to perform in the extreme temperature changes on Mars which range from -128 to 85 degrees Celsuis, a company spokesperson said. They’re designed to measure actuator position, velocity and other performance criteria. The data is used to adjust performance of the actuators allowing Curiosity to move and maneuver.

With some 220 employees at Flextronics, a core team built the sensors working in a 12,000 square foot vacuum-sealed clean room with a particle filter at the 140,000 square foot plant. Government clearance had to be secured to just take a photo of the team at the plant.

“Flextronics is extremely proud to have played a part in this historical exploratory mission to Mars,” said Paul Humphries, president of Flextronics High Reliability Solutions group in a press release. “We share NASA’s excitement for the complex rover program and are thrilled to have contributed to this important scientific exploration.”

In addition to the electronic sensor, another Flextronics company, Multek Flexible Circuits in Minnesota, manufactured thermal control materials that enabled Curiosity to travel safely to Mars.

Flextronics’ Valencia facility specializes in manufacturing microelectronics for aerospace, defense and medical applications. Located here since 2001, the company was acquired by Stellar Microelectronics in April of this year.

While terms of the deal were not announced, Stellar’s annual revenue was reported to be just under $100 million prior to the purchase. Stellar has some 200,000 employees worldwide, said David Jewell, vice president of integrated marketing and communications.

Flextronics, with a technology center and RF design and test laboratory, gets to manufacture some special equipment, Eitman said. It also makes medical implants and the team has to be very precise as “someone’s life is at stake,” she said.

Meanwhile, the company is gearing up for another complex project. Flextronics’s next mission is NASA’s MMS program — magnetospheric multiscale, Eitman said.

The MMS mission is designed to place four identical spacecraft in the Earth’s orbit to make 3-D measurements of magnetospheric — streams of charged particles, like solar winds, that interact with and are deflected by the magnetic field of the planet.

Intricate projects are part of the everyday work life for the employees at Flextronics, who work on different shifts. But aside from the thrill of seeing Curiosity working with the help of the electronic sensors they produced, the employees who worked on the project said they were excited about coming together into one group to have their photo taken, Eitman said. Working different shifts, they don’t always get to see each other and stand as one team at the same moment.



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