This is a guest post in our series looking at the future of 3D Printing. To celebrate 5 years of reporting on the 3D printing industry, we’ve invited industry leaders and 3D printing experts to give us their perspective and predictions for the next 5 years and insight into trends in additive manufacturing.

Brian O’Connor is Vice President, Production Operations at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.  Lockheed Martin is a global security and aerospace company that employs approximately 97,000 people worldwide and is principally engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and sustainment of advanced technology systems, products and services.

How Lockheed Martin is Printing the Path to Mars By Brian O’Connor

We’re going to get to Mars—and live there one day—with advanced manufacturing. Sure, plenty of other advances in propulsion, communication and navigation will play key roles along the way, but when we talk about how to get there and other places in our solar system, advanced manufacturing will create light, efficient spacecraft that will open space opportunity for the masses.

Illustration of NASA's Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Lockheed Martin built the Juno spacecraft for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Illustration of NASA’s Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Lockheed Martin built the Juno spacecraft for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

3D printing for the Jupiter space probe and Orion Spacecraft

It’s important to distinguish advanced manufacturing from additive manufacturing. Additive—or 3D printing—plays a role in our advanced manufacturing strategy, but only part of it. At the core of our strategy is the Digital Tapestry, the digital backbone of our designs that effectively talks to both our engineering and production systems. Linking production and engineering in this way creates better collaboration, more opportunity for virtual inspection and training.

3D printed brackets for the Juno mission. Photo by Michael Petch.

3D printed brackets for the Juno mission. Photo by Michael Petch.

On the production end, the same engineering models instruct our additive machines, tightly linking the concept-development-testing-production (and even sustainment) process. The beginnings of this process bore fruit with our first 3D printed brackets, which traveled 1.7 billion miles to Jupiter, the furthest any 3D printed part has flown. And now our parts are on NASA’s Orion crewed spacecraft, on military satellites and in missiles.

A photo taken by the Juno Spaceprobe taken on February 2, 2017 as the probe flew directly over Jupiter's south pole. Photo via NASA.

A photo taken by the Juno Spaceprobe taken on February 2, 2017 as the probe flew directly over Jupiter’s south pole. Photo via NASA.

We’re ready to do more than simple components, but they have been important pathfinders as we seek a bolder goal: 3D printing an entire spacecraft. Here’s how we’re going to do it.

Researching new materials

First, we are developing new materials for 3D printing. Metals and polymers can only take us so far, but what if we could customize materials for the unique needs of each mission? By researching new “inks” for 3D printing, we can integrate structure and systems together, like conductive skeletons for electronics and computing.

We’ve already achieved it in demonstrations, and we’re developing ways to do it in production. We received funding this year from the Office of Naval Research to do just that, in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University. This partnership bolsters the full material science expertise at our Advanced Technology Center labs to make materials-by-design a reality.

The Orion spacecraft. Image via NASA

The Orion spacecraft. Image via NASA

The space factory of the future

A second element to our advanced manufacturing strategy takes us out of the labs and onto the factory floor. What does the space factory of the future look like? Right now, 3D printing machines work by themselves, producing a raw part that needs to be machined. We’re testing new ways to build components using additive clusters that additively build, subtractively finish and inspect a part.

Robotic arms perform a precise dance to save even more cost and schedule. We envision people and automation working together to build complex parts, reducing the overall build schedule to half the time, or less.  

GPS3 Processing Facility at Lockheed Martin.

GPS3 Processing Facility at Lockheed Martin.

Qualification is critical

Third, and most important in our strategy, is qualification. Lockheed Martin is a pioneer in this field, working with industry to establish standards for qualifying new types of parts using new types of additive processes. I can’t overemphasize the importance, especially as a spacecraft builder, to make sure our 3D printed products work right the first time and every time in the extreme environment of space.

Lives and critical missions depend on it, and there are no service centers on the way to Mars.

We can’t do this alone. Qualification requires close partnership first with our customers, plus our partners in the aerospace industry and the larger manufacturing marketspace.

As a team we are making new progress for our first critical 3D printed parts, titanium fuel tanks, which we aim to certify by the end of the year. Thinner than most titanium tanks, they save 75 percent of the bulk material usually required and can be ready for the spacecraft in 20 percent of the time. Moreover, they outperform our pressurization standards for traditional tanks. This is just one example of progress on our quest for more qualified critical system parts.

We may not know when we’re going to get to Mars, but with advanced manufacturing, we on Earth can make sure we get there as soon as possible.

Brian O'Connor opens the Lockheed Martin Electronics Manufacturing Facility EMF at its Space Systems Company campus in Littleton, Colorado.

Brian O’Connor opens the Lockheed Martin Electronics Manufacturing Facility EMF at its Space Systems Company campus in Littleton, Colorado.

3D Printing Industry learned more about how Lockheed Martin Space Systems are using additive manufacturing when we attended the International Astronautical Congress. You can read the report on the roadmap for a manned mission to Mars here.

Also, our readers have nominated Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ work on the Juno space probe for a 3D Printing Industry Award, you can make your own vote here.

This is a guest post in our series looking at the future of 3D Printing, if you’d like to participate in this series then contact us for more information. For more insights into the 3D printing industry, sign up to our newsletter and follow our active social media channels. Let us know your thoughts about this perspective on the future of 3D printing in the comments below.

More information about Lockheed Martin Space Systems is available here.

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Featured image shows the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA’s Orion spacecraft mounted atop, lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex as a first step towards a manned mission to Mars. Photo via NASA.

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