Lockheed A2100 3D 3-D printing
Brian O’Connor, vice president of production operations for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, explaining how the company wants to use new manufacturing techniques including 3D printing and robotics to halve the time needed to build a satellite. Credit: SpaceNews

DENVER — Lockheed Martin wants to cut in half the time it needs to build satellites that use its flagship A2100 spacecraft platform.

Brian O’Connor, vice president of production operations for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said April 3 that the average time needed to complete such a satellite today is around 36 to 40 months.

“We are trying to get a satellite up in space in 18 months,” he said.

Lockheed Martin recently overhauled its A2100 spacecraft bus, conducting a “technology refresh” to reduce cost by 35 percent and build times by 25 percent. Kay Sears, the vice president of strategy and business development for Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems division, told SpaceNews in March that the company is in the “last mile” for reaching those goals, which began in 2014.

O’Connor didn’t describe the newly stated goal of a 50-percent reduction in manufacturing time as a new initiative, but as a target made feasible by the introduction of new manufacturing techniques, mainly additive manufacturing and robotics.

O’Connor used a 46-inch (1.17 meter) titanium tank produced through additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, as an example of how to drastically slash build times. Designed for the modernized A2100, he said 3-D printing cut the tank’s production time “from 18 months down to the neighborhood of less than six months.” That tank will be qualified by the end of the year, he said.

O’Connor said Lockheed Martin wants to reach its 18-month goal without employing a long-term approach that requires pre-purchasing hardware with lengthy fabrication times well in advance of customer orders.

“Our intention is to be able to not have to lay out all that long-lead material to go buy down that schedule,” he said, adding that Lockheed Martin wants the ability to create unique designs and not “cookie cutter” satellites.

3-D printing “allows us to do custom designs without paying the premium of a custom design,” he said.

Lockheed Martin is using 3-D printing for limited applications today, such as tanks and brackets, O’Connor said, but that will change over time. O’Connor described the company’s use of 3-D printed technology as just at the beginning of the curve.

For satellite operators racing to secure a claim to a specific orbital slot, replace an older satellite running low on fuel or beat a competitor to market, production time is an important criteria when buying a new satellite. Israeli satellite operator Spacecom, for example, said the big reason it recently purchased Amos-17 from Boeing was the company’s ability to build the satellite in just 24 months.

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...