WASHINGTON — Manufacturing components with 3D printing is one way Boeing is shortening the production cycle of the U.S. military’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) communications satellite, the company said March 1 in a news release.

Boeing is building WGS-11+, the 11th satellite of the WGS constellation, at its factory in El Segundo, California. The Space Force awarded the company a $605 million contract in October 2019. Boeing in 2020 announced the delivery is scheduled for 2024.

Making a WGS satellite in five years is a shorter timeline compared to the typical seven-to-10-year production schedule for large and complex military spacecraft.

“We’re printing more than a thousand parts for WGS-11+, giving us the capability to introduce customization in a way that improves system performance, without requiring extensive integration times or customized tooling,” said Troy Dawson, Boeing Government Satellite Systems vice president.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has not yet replaced traditional satellite manufacturing methods but it’s gaining ground. Boeing for years has 3D printed components for small satellites — such as those made by its subsidiary Millennium Space — but is now applying this technology to big-ticket satellites like WGS. 

Large geostationary satellites have anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of parts, so printing a thousand parts is a small percentage. However, that is still a 10-fold increase in the amount of metal 3D-printed parts compared to the most recent spacecraft Boeing designed before WGS-11, according to the company. 

The parts that are being 3D printed for WGS include structures and mechanisms, thermal control subsystems, dynamic isolation systems and passive microwave devices. Materials used include aluminum alloy, titanium alloy and high-performance polymer. Boeing said it is also qualifying other materials. 

WGS-11+ uses Boeing’s commercial 702X digital satellite payload that generates hundreds of electronically-steered beams simultaneously. According to the company, this provides users with more than twice the throughput capacity compared to existing satellites in the WGS fleet.

The WGS constellation provides broadband communications to the United States military and several international partners that include Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, and Norway. The U.S. also has a separate bilateral agreement with Australia. Two new partner nations are in discussions to join the coalition but their identities have not yet been disclosed.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...