MakerBot 3D printing deployed to enhance design of autonomous lunar rover for NASA

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin has harnessed MakerBot 3D printing to design and test elements of an AI-powered lunar rover that could be deployed during NASA’s mission to return to the Moon. 

Using MakerBot’s METHOD X, Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center (ATC) has been able to expedite the R&D of both the vehicle’s systems housings and sensor mounts. 3D printed from ABS, these prototypes are built to withstand all conditions from searing desert heat to UV or moisture exposure, making them ideal tools for developing a rover capable of enduring the harsh realities of space. 

“The rover we have at ATC is a testbed that we designed and developed in-house,” explains Aaron Christian, Senior Mechanical Engineer at Lockheed Martin Space. “This affordable modular testbed allows us to make quick changes using 3D printing to change the design for other applications, whether it be military, search and rescue, nuclear applications and just extreme environment autonomy needs.” 

“Autonomous vehicles are an optimal way to explore the surface of the Moon, and to continue space exploration onto Mars and beyond.”

Lockheed Martin’s ATC 

In keeping with its stated mission to explore “next-generation and generation-after-next” technologies, Lockheed Martin has a storied history of contracting 3D printing firms to contribute to its aerospace projects. Just last year, the firm began working with Relativity Space to develop rockets capable of firing potentially-dangerous cryogenic management systems into orbit for testing purposes. 

To address its space software needs, the company has contracted Sigma Labs and its PrintRite3D in-process quality assurance technology as well, but in other areas, it has also sought to develop its in-house capabilities, opening a $350 million satellite production facility, complete with 3D printing and ‘virtual immersion environments.’

At its Californian ATC, meanwhile, Lockheed Martin has built a comparatively small-scale 3D printing lab, but its importance within the contractor’s wider R&D setup should not be underestimated. The facility has made use of MakerBot tech for around five years now, including machines that enable its team to create test beds for assessing parts in real-world settings, before they go into production. 

By manufacturing these mock-ups in-house, the company is said to be able to iterate their designs ten times more quickly and cheaply than if they were outsourced, while enabling it to better meet the demands of its clientele. 

“There’s a huge benefit to having the 3D printers on-site,” says Alyssa Ruiz, Lab Manager at the ATC. “Without them, we would have to send parts out for machining, which can extend lead times and increase costs. The 3D printers at our lab help with the efficiency of prototyping, getting parts out, and making sure that we can meet schedules and budgets.” 

Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Center.
Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center is now home to MakerBot’s METHOD X 3D printer. Photo via MakerBot.

Adopting the METHOD X 

Having recently adopted the METHOD X, the ATC’s engineers have now begun using its nylon carbon fiber and ABS-printing capabilities to produce parts for a rover it’s developing alongside General Motors. Being built as part of NASA’s Artemis mission, the lunar vehicle is set to be fully-autonomous, allowing it to explore greater swathes of the Moon’s surface and carry out more ambitious scientific research.

To ensure that their prototype rover is robust enough to survive such lengthy missions alone, the ATC team has therefore started to 3D print models and expose them to lunar conditions. When produced in combination with Stratasys SR-30 soluble supports, these ABS parts are said to feature a sufficiently smooth surface finish, with ideal properties for the task. 

One such component the engineers have been able to optimize and iterate upon, is a mount for the rover’s LIDAR detection system, which is critical for its navigation. Through MakerBot prototyping, the team has now managed to come up with a modular solution, which can be fitted with different camera, antenna or rangefinder attachments, and features integrated channels to prevent overheating. 

The lunar vehicle’s embedded electronics housing has also been steadily developed using 3D printing, to a point that it’s now able to protect its delicate internals from drops or falls. As a result, even though the team say that the rover remains at an “early stage of development,” they believe the technology behind its R&D could help reduce costs and open design possibilities, in further space manufacturing applications. 

“It [3D printing] reduces the amount of fasteners needed and part count, which is a huge cost saving,” adds Christian. “This also opens up future in-situ assembly in space. You have designed, printed, and tested the part on Earth. Now you know that, in future, you can 3D print that same part in space, because you have shown that the material and part works there.”

An engineer modelling the rover's 3D printed LIDAR radar holder prototype.
An engineer modelling the rover’s 3D printed LIDAR radar holder prototype. Photo via MakerBot.

A ‘performance-grade’ machine? 

Designed to fill a gap in the market between desktop and industrial systems, the METHOD X has increasingly proven capable of yielding parts for intensive end-use applications. Last January, product engineering firm CALLUM found it was able to deploy the machine to 3D print prototypes, tooling and low-volumes of parts for a limited edition Aston Martin

Similarly, motorsport engineering firm Prodrive used the METHOD X to produce more than 30 car parts for its Bahrain Raid Xtreme team’s Hunter T1 vehicle, at the 2021 edition of the Dakar Rally. Due to the pandemic, the team were forced to streamline the development of the T1, but they are said to have found adopting 3D printing to be ideal for both rapidly prototyping parts and conducting maintenance.

Elsewhere, propulsion system specialist Triton Space Technologies has also utilized the METHOD X for space-testing purposes, by 3D printing a functional valve prototype for a Moon-bound client last year. In doing so, the firm was able to reduce its lead time from days down to a matter of hours, while more flexibly controlling its production process.

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Featured image shows a rendering of Lockheed Martin’s AI-powered lunar rover. Image via MakerBot.