Lockheed Martin extends additive manufacturing to key spacecraft components

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This article originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Engineers and researchers stand near one of the two metal laser-deposition machines at Lockheed Martin's Additive Design and Manufacturing Center. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Engineers and researchers stand near one of the two metal laser-deposition machines at Lockheed Martin’s Additive Design and Manufacturing Center. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin’s Additive Design and Manufacturing Center in Sunnyvale, California, where the company produces military, commercial and civil space technology, attained a comprehensive safety certification.

“We are the first UL certified additive manufacturing facility in the world,” Servando Cuellar, Lockheed Martin Space Systems engineering senior manager, told SpaceNews.

UL, a safety consulting, education and inspection firm based in Northbrook, Illinois, published the additive manufacturing safety standard, UL 3400, in 2017. It is designed to help additive manufacturers meet regulatory requirements and standards, while addressing risks related to 3D printing materials, equipment and production.

To obtain UL certification, an organization must show all additive manufacturing equipment in a facility has been certified or evaluated by a third party and conduct extensive workforce training focused on additive manufacturing process safety as well as the identification and management of machines, materials and hazards. In addition, organizations seeking the new certification must monitor facilities to ensure safety management practices remain in force.

Lockheed Martin’s Additive Design and Manufacturing Center, a 629-square-meter facility, opened for business Sept. 17. The company created the facility to bridge the gap between materials research and manufacturing, and produce satellite components more quickly and at lower cost, Cuellar said.

“It’s a pretty amazing technology,” he said. “I don’t think we understand the limitations or all the possibilities.”

In the last decade, space companies have additively manufactured increasingly complex spacecraft components, starting with small brackets and progressing to large and critical components.

While the aerospace primes focus on additive manufacturing to cut costs and save time, many startups are building businesses around 3D printing.

Rocket Lab of New Zealand and the United States prints all major components of its Electron rocket’s Rutherford engine. Relativity Space of Los Angeles plans to additively manufacture entire launch vehicles. Additive Rocket Corporation of San Diego couples additive manufacturing with generative design, where computer algorithms test designs to find the optimal solution. Launcher of Brooklyn, New York, is test firing a 3D printed copper alloy engine.

Lockheed Martin’s first printed spacecraft component, a titanium waveguide bracket “small enough to fit in the palm of your hand,” according to Cuellar, was launched on NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter in 2011. Lockheed Martin also printed the Remote Interface Unit, an aluminum box that houses avionic circuits, on the sixth U.S. Air Force Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite, which is slated to launch in 2019.

The Juno spacecraft NASA launched to Jupiter in 2011 carried Lockheed Martin's first spaceflown printed spacecraft component, a small titanium waveguide bracket. Credit: Lockheed Martin
The Juno spacecraft NASA launched to Jupiter in 2011 carried Lockheed Martin’s first spaceflown printed spacecraft component, a small titanium waveguide bracket. Credit: Lockheed Martin

In July, Lockheed Martin Space completed quality testing on its largest printed part to date: a dome that caps a 1.16-meter-diameter high-pressure fuel tank. To construct the fuel tanks, technicians weld a traditionally manufactured titanium cylinder with two of the printed domes. The company plans to offer customers the printed tanks as a standard option for its LM 2100 satellite bus, designed for 2,300- to 6,500-kilogram spacecraft.

“As more people get into the industry and companies invest more, the technology keeps getting better and better,” Cuellar said.

Materials engineers deserve some of the credit as they continue to produce new powders and wires from aluminum, stainless steel and Inconel.

Lockheed Martin Space’s Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, California, is developing a printable form of copper.

“We are experimenting with printing antennas onto conformal surfaces,” Cuellar said. “What if you could print an antenna onto a UAV wing, for example? There is a lot of new material innovation happening within industry but also here within Lockheed Martin.”

Meanwhile, new equipment offers companies the ability to print larger structures. A decade ago, engineers could print parts that would fit within a 15-centimeter cube, the printing area of their machines. Soon, machines will offer printing areas as large as one cubic meter, Cuellar said.

In addition, the latest equipment offers engineers and technicians new ways to monitor printing processes and improvement in speed, safety and reliability.

“It’s almost like computers,” Cuellar said. “Every three to five years, there is a new machine that is bigger and better. You have to continue to invest in additive manufacturing equipment because otherwise you are going to fall behind.”

“Ten or 20 years from now, I don’t think engineers are going to be designing to machine stuff,” Cuellar said. “They are going to design to print it. If they can’t print it, they’ll have to machine it.”