Lockheed Leaning on 3-D Printing To Bring Tank Work In-house

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LITTLETON, Colo. — Lockheed Martin Space Systems could eventually replace satellite propellant tanks now built by longtime partner Orbital ATK with 3-D-printed tanks Lockheed would build in-house, a Lockheed executive said here April 13.

Lockheed Martin has been buying titanium tanks from Orbital ATK’s Commerce, California-based space systems facility for years. All three U.S. Mars orbiters currently circling the red planet were built around Orbital ATK tanks, as was NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid-sampling spacecraft nearing completion here for its 2016 launch. Likewise, Lockheed’s planned Jupiter space tug, which the company in March proposed building to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, would use an Orbital ATK tank.

But if the 3D-printed techniques Lockheed is testing here work as intended, “we may switch to additive manufacturing later” for future spacecraft tanks, Mike Hamel, vice president and general manager of commercial space, told members of the press during a factory tour. The printed tanks would be “built in-house,” Hamel said.

MAVEN propellant tank
A hydrazine propellant tank built for NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin Space Systems is increasing its focus on 3-D printing in response to a gauntlet laid down at last year’s National Space Symposium by Rick Ambrose, Lockheed Martin executive vice president for space systems. Ambrose challenged the division to dramatically reduce satellite lead times using 3-D printing: five years or fewer for military satellites, and three years or fewer for commercial satellites.

A year later, Lockheed’s space division has identified propellant tanks as one area where 3-D printing can have an immediate effect on both production time and cost. Lockheed is using a $4 million 3-D-printing machine, purchased last year from additive manufacturing specialist Sciaky Inc., Chicago, to make fuel tanks as large as roughly 150 centimeters in diameter.

The Sciaky machine, which spins hemispherical halves of tanks from spools of titanium wire, can cut the manufacturing cost of a propellent tank in half, Dennis Little, Lockheed’s vice president of production for space systems, said during the tour. Printing a tank is also quicker than casting one in a mold, which takes roughly 20 months counting the lead time for ordering bulk forged titanium chunks known as billets, Little said. Titanium spools, on the other hand, can be easily stored near the Sciaky machine at Lockheed’s facility near Denver.

Lockheed sees 3-D-printed tanks flying before the end of the decade. The company is set to wrap up its internal evaluation of the new manufacturing process early next year, Little said, after which NASA and the Air Force will have to certify the tanks are safe for government spacecraft.

Lockheed’s goal, assuming the printed tanks work out as planned, is to start flying the hardware aboard commercial, military and civil satellites “within the next couple of years,” Little said.

Orbital ATK, meanwhile, has not given up on retaining Lockheed Martin’s business.

“We intend to be an excellent supplier to Lockheed Martin in the future based on their requirements. We cannot comment specifically on their technology that is currently under development,” David Shanahan, vice president and general manager of Orbital ATK’s Space Components Division.