Lockheed Martin produces its largest 3D printed parts for space

Lockheed Martin, a global security and aerospace company based in Maryland, has produced two large titanium 3D printed domes for a high-pressure tank responsible for holding fuel on-board orbiting satellites.

Measuring at 46 inches in diameter, the titanium domes which were fabricated using Sciaky’s Electronic Beam Additive Manufacturing (EBAM) technology, are Lockheed Martin’s largest 3D printed parts.

The two domes were created as part of a multi-year development program to create giant, high-powered, all-mission capable satellite buses, known as the LM 2100 series.

“Our largest 3D printed parts to date show we’re committed to a future where we produce satellites twice as fast and at half the cost,” said Rick Ambrose, Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin Space.

The new fuel tank for Lockheed Martin’s largest satellites which features two 3D printed domes. Photo via Lockheed Martin.

Equipping aerospace satellites

In 2014, Lockheed Martin became the second customer to purchase the large-scale EBAM system and has used its technology to create titanium propulsion tanks measuring at 15 inches in diameter. This 3D printed technology efficiently produces high-performance parts using an electron beam gun to deposit layers of metal via a wire feedstock.

Due to launch turbulence and decade-long space missions, satellite fuel tanks must be durable and lightweight, making titanium a suitable material for the domes. Rather than using traditional forging methods, which can take over a year to complete, Lockheed Martin leveraged the EBAM system to eliminate significant lead times.

“We self-funded this design and qualification effort as an investment in helping our customers move faster and save costs,” added Ambrose. “We shaved off 87 percent of the schedule to build the domes, reducing the total delivery timeline from two years to three months.”

This infographic shows the scale of the 3D printed domes, their placement on the tank and overall location within an LM 2100 satellite. Image via Lockheed Martin.

The satellite fuel tank is constructed using a traditionally-manufactured titanium cylinder that forms the body and two 3D printed domes that serve as caps. These three parts are welded together to form the complete tank vessel.

Lockheed Martin engineers also thoroughly tested the fuel tank for any smallest leaks or flaws to exceed the performance and reliability standards required by NASA. This included a full suite of tests to demonstrate high tolerances and repeatability.

“These tanks are part of a total transformation in the way we design and deliver space technology. We’re making great strides in automation, virtual reality design and commonality across our satellite product line,” said Ambrose.

The two domes were created in the largest 3D printer at Lockheed Martin’s manufacturing facility in Denver. Prior to this, Lockheed Martin’s largest qualified part was an electronics enclosure, the size of a regular kitchen worktop appliance, created for a Lockheed Martin military satellite.

A Lockheed Martin engineer inspects one of the 3D printed dome prototypes at the company's space facility in Denver. The final dome is large enough to fit 74.4 gallons of liquid. Photo via Lockheed Martin.
A Lockheed Martin engineer inspects one of the 3D printed dome prototypes at the company’s space facility in Denver. The final dome is large enough to fit 74.4 gallons of liquid. Photo via Lockheed Martin.

3D printed parts explore deep space

NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which entered orbit in 2016, features 3D printed waveguide mounting support brackets also manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The 3D printed parts traveled an estimated 1.7 billion miles, making it the first of its kind to reach deep space. The support brackets were made using an Arcam Electron Beam Melting (EBM) 3D printer.

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Featured image shows Lockheed Martin commercial satellites in space. Image via Lockheed Martin.