Mar 9, 2016 | By Kira
Lockheed Martin Corp, the Pentagon’s largest supplier of aerospace, defense, security and advanced technologies, is looking to hold onto that same title by dramatically reducing its operating costs and shortening the time it takes to build new satellites by as much as 40 percent. Though ambitious, Lockheed believes this target can be achieved thanks to advances in metal 3D printing and other technologies, and that it will help secure ongoing contracts with the U.S. Air Force.
For years, Lockheed Martin has dominated the satellite industry, with 78% of its 2013 revenue coming from U.S. military sales alone. However, those satellites have always come at a steep cost, both financially, and time-wise. As the manufacturing landscape changes, Lockheed is at risk of being edged out by companies such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and other firms who are offering cheaper and faster services.
In particular, the U.S. Air Force will soon be announcing a decision on how to replace and augment the large missile warning and protected communications satellites build by Lockheed, and that decision is sure to come down to three essential factors: quality, speed, and money. By adopting metal additive manufacturing and other technologies, Lockheed Martin hopes to improve all three and hold on to its top spot.
“Ultimately [the government] is going to go to a new architecture, so by reducing the cost, it helps the government and it also helps get us to the future,” said Rick Ambrose, head of Lockheed’s space business. In the next three to five years, he said, Lockheed will strive to shorten satellite development time by 40 percent, and will advance to a point where satellites can be reprogrammed for new missions while already in orbit, further optimizing their functionality.
By cutting lead times, reducing weight, proving reliability, and expanding functionality, metal 3D printing is an obvious answer. In fact, the U.S. Navy recently 3D printed its own parts for the P-3 Orion Maritime Surveillance Aircraft, saying that it would have taken Lockheed at least a month and a half longer to manufacture the same fitting using traditional methods.
Luckily, Lockheed has already been implementing 3D printing technology to 3D print titanium satellite parts, and flight-ready parts in titanium, aluminum, and Inconel. In addition to 3D printing parts for its Juno spacecraft, Lockheed is testing a 3D printed part for use on the next AEHF satellite. Moving forward, it is expected to complete testing of a 26-inch 3D printed propellant tank, and will soon being work on an even larger, 46-inch version. According to Lockheed, additively manufacturing a metal part using a Sciaky 3D printer can reduce lead times by 80 percent or more.
In addition to pushing metal 3D printing applications, Lockheed has initiated several other strategies to reduce costs and manufacturing times. It recently cut $2.8 billion from its main satellite portfolio, and it has lowered operating costs by shutting facilities. Ambrose added that increasing the number of common parts among its satellites and standardizing interfaces and payloads would also go a long way towards reducing lead times.
The U.S. Air Force has not yet released any statements regarding acquisitions plans for the new satellite systems, giving Lockheed a bit more time to prove whether or not it can hold on to its No. 1 spot.
Posted in 3D Printing Application
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