Lockheed Launches
3D Printing into Space


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The A2100 communications satellite. Image: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin is implementing 3D printing and other types of additive manufacturing to reduce manufacturing costs and improve operational excellence throughout the entire lifecycle of its aerospace products.

3D printing is a process that makes three-dimensional objects directly from a computer model, using additive methods.

“A material, such as titanium, is heated and then applied in successive layers to create almost any shape,” says Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Space Systems for Lockheed Martin.

“When a product is printed using additive manufacturing, waste is minimized and cycle time is drastically reduced.”

Lockheed Martin is in the process of completely overhauling its workhorse A2100 satellite, a commercial communications satellite used for everything from providing Internet connectivity to satellite television. It has deployed more than 800 spacecraft and 300 payloads over the last 50 years.

3D Printed Equipment

Lockheed Martin is modernizing every aspect of the satellite, which includes using digital design and additive manufacturing to streamline manufacturing efforts. “We’re taking a proven satellite platform and refreshing both our technology and manufacturing processes for the future,” comments Jim Buckley, director for the A2100 modernization program. This provides two major advantages: weight and schedule reduction, both of which drive costs lower.

Robotic 3D printer concept. Image: Lockheed Martin

“We’re using 3D printed parts to test form, fit, and function before we move into full-scale production,” adds Buckley. “3D printed parts are also being used for flight hardware on the modernized A2100 satellite.”

The fuel tanks were also prototyped using 3D methods. Because the tanks were too large for Lockheed Martin to manufacture with its own additive manufacturing equipment, the company turned to Stratasys for guidance. Stratasys used a large-scale 3D printing technology called fused deposition modelling (FDM) to produce prototypes of the fuel tanks, which were the largest parts ever built by the company using FDM. Stratasys completed an extensive design review to determine the best orientation and slice height to ensure it could accurately build and bond the sections together in a process that would meet the dimensional requirements.

“Ultimately, satellite mass reduction translates into reduced launch costs for our customers, as well as increased capability by adding expanded payload capacity,” says Buckley. “And the faster we can produce parts, the sooner we can deliver and launch our satellites into orbit.”

For a broader view, Lockheed Martin also utilizes a 3D pathfinding simulation technology called the “Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory” (CHIL). This system allows the company to identify areas where it can improve affordability, efficiency, and quality in all its manufacturing operations.

“The CHIL is an advanced virtual reality and simulation laboratory that offers a smarter, cheaper, and lower risk opportunity for building space systems, including satellites, exploration spacecraft, launch vehicles, and missile defense systems,” says Ambrose. “The facility enables virtual creation before the physical creation to improve the affordability of our products and associated processes. Lockheed Martin is applying this innovative technology across the business’s programs to improve production processes.”

Future Missions

Lockheed Martin is currently using additive manufacturing to develop printed titanium satellite parts and plans to expand the process in the future for making more complex parts and perhaps even complete satellites.

“It’s incredibly exciting to see 3D printing technology reshaping the manufacturing floor at Lockheed Martin,” says Buckley. “It’s more than just the parts—it is a mindset in all of us to think about how we can incorporate the latest manufacturing technology into everything we do, providing more value to our customers. As we continue to explore the many uses of 3D printing for our business, I am confident we will uncover many more ways to streamline our operations and reduce manufacturing costs.”

Mark Crawford is an independent writer. 

Participate in ASME's Advanced Design & Manufacturing Impact Forum, focusing on the intersection of advanced design and manufacturing in industrial and consumer applications.

We’re using 3D printed parts to test form, fit, and function before we move into full-scale production.

Jim Buckley, Lockheed Martin

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August 2014

by Mark Crawford, ASME.org