Additive Manufacturing Is Out of This World

Whether it’s at work beneath our feet or thousands of miles above our heads, additive manufacturing has emerged as a game-changing technology that cuts cycle time and brings affordability to production.    

We’re pioneering new methods for additive manufacturing at our Advanced Technology Center (ATC) in California and other numerous Space Systems facilities. Here, we bring innovation to life through discovering faster, smarter ways to manufacture spacecraft that will solve the mysteries of the universe.

Within additive manufacturing lies 3-D printing, which has four essential categories: small metal, small polymer, big metal and big polymer. 3-D printing works by taking a material—a titanium wire or polymer powder, for example—melting it little-by-little with a laser or electron beam and depositing the material where it needs to be according to a computer-generated blueprint. This is done until thousands upon thousands of 2-D printed layers create the desired product.

The item—a bracket, for example—is then refined by smoothing out the surface, then rigorously tested. The refinement step is of critical importance as even the slightest particle disturbance must be minimized to allow for safe space flight.

Did you know that there are already 3-D-printed parts flying in outer space? Here are a few ways we’re bringing additive manufacturing “out of this world”:


A2100 Universal Backing Structure Connectors

The A2100 satellite brings world-class telecommunications capability to customers around the world. The antenna—which plays a key role in distributing and receiving broadcast signals—is supported by a universal backing structure. The juncture points (pictured above) for the antenna reflector are connected by sheer tie fittings 3-D printed at Lockheed Martin out of titanium powder and an electron beam. Additively manufacturing the sheer tie fittings resulted in a 43 percent reduction in cycle time compared to traditional machining methods.


Juno Waveguide Brackets

Launched in summer of 2011 and scheduled to arrive at Jupiter in July 2016, Juno is the first Lockheed Martin spacecraft ever to fly 3-D printed parts—a set of 11 titanium waveguide brackets, to be precise. These brackets were used to attach the waveguide, a rectangular pipe used for conducting radio frequency signals between spacecraft components. Juno will intensely study Jupiter’s characteristics to help us better understand the planet’s origin and shed light on the formation of our greater solar system. Once the spacecraft reaches Jupiter, it—and the brackets—will have traveled more than 1.7 billion miles in space!


Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) Vents

In December 2014, Orion—the spacecraft that will one day take humans to Mars—underwent its very first high orbital test flight. Throughout ascent, orbit and re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the spacecraft endured a wide array of volatile environmental conditions. To help maintain the necessary pressure levels inside the crew module during ascent and re-entry, four vents (pictured above) were 3-D printed from nickel alloy and placed in the crew module. The vents contributed to Orion’s near-flawless performance during its test flight. 


OSIRIS-REx Bracket

In order to route cables over tubing on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, a 3-D printed “ski ramp” bracket is used. It began as a special polymer powder that was then melted and layered throughout the additive manufacturing process to create the part. The Lockheed Martin team printed a prototype, refined it, reprinted and validated it all in a matter of days—a process which formerly would have taken months. Shown above in assembly, OSIRIS-Rex will launch in September 2016 and aims to collect and return to Earth a pristine sample of asteroid Bennu. 

October 5, 2015