I love it when the world we observe through media coincides with the world we personally interact with.
In this case, most of us watched viral video in February as mission control personnel at NASA erupted in gleeful cheers when they successfully landed the Perseverance land vehicle on Mars. At the same time, the small staff at Windings was erupting with some glee of its own.
Somewhere within Perseverance’s robotic arm is a part made by Windings, the New Ulm-based manufacturer of custom-built electric motors and motor parts. Exactly which part, they’re not allowed to say. There is also a Windings part in the rover’s coring turret drill, which is used to drill beneath Mars’ surface to remove soil core samples.
You can read a full profile of the company in the upcoming edition of Enterprise Minnesota magazine.
This isn’t the first time Windings has designed products meant to work in extreme conditions.
David Hansen, the company’s director of strategic marketing explains that the company’s parts can be found miles below the seabed in oil and gas downhole tooling. “We say we have components from miles below the surface of the sea to Mars and everything in between,” he says.
The company also has strong ties to other industries. The company developed hand-held surgical tools for the medical device industry, and motors designed to withstand extreme conditions for the oil and gas drilling industries. The company has also entered the factory automation and hybrid vehicle realms. They’ve done work with companies on the alternative energy front, as well, including wind.
While Windings is fairly diversified, it still gets over 50% of its revenue from the aerospace and defense industries. Hansen says the company has seen upper single-digit or lower double-digit growth every year since the company’s inception.
One of Windings’ niches is what Hansen calls “doing the hard stuff.” And one need only look at a previous high-profile project to see just how “hard” he means.
The Parker Solar Probe mission is a seven-year NASA effort to study the sun. It’s a spacecraft that will fly closer to the sun than any other man-made object. That means dealing with extreme heat and radiation. In that case, Windings supplied parts that help the spacecraft maneuver its solar panels.
Windings’ work with Perseverance isn’t the first time one of its parts made it to Mars. For NASA’s Curiosity rover, Windings supplied parts for the mechanical crane that delivered the craft to Mars’ surface.
Doing work in space is very unforgiving because of the vacuum concept, extreme cold, extreme heat, and radiation.
When designing parts to work in a vacuum, engineers must contend with a concept known as outgassing, which refers to the phenomenon of gases trapped within a solid leaving that solid. This happens in the extreme conditions of a vacuum. When outgassing occurs, parts don’t work.
This puts utmost importance on material selection. Cadmium, zinc and magnesium, for example, have high outgassing rates and would be poor choices for any components designed for functioning in a vacuum. Certain varieties of stainless steel and aluminum, on the other hand, have low outgassing rates and would be good choices.
Engineers for products designed to go into space also must contend with another reality: it just has to work. This notion has a name: “The five nines of reliability,” which means anything designed for use in space has to have a 99.999% percent success probability.
“Everything we do is challenging,” Hansen says. “Everything we do has a critical nature to it for one reason or another. That could be what kind of environment that it’s operating in, it could be performance — they’re pushing the envelope on performance of these parts. Failure is not an option when you do this.”
Read all about Windings in the Summer edition of Enterprise Minnesota® magazine.
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