Nov 23, 2017 | By Tess

Rick Ambrose, the executive vice president of space systems at Lockheed Martin, recently dished on how the company is looking to and adopting 3D printing technologies to stay current and relevant in the quickly changing field of space exploration.

Within the space industry, having state-of-the-art technologies and systems is crucial. In fact, in recent years there has been a surge of space exploration startups predicated on the idea of “NewSpace,” which are seeking to improve, advance, and often simplify elements of space exploration.

This surge has led some to believe that there is a rift between NewSpace startups and established “Old Space” companies and organizations, such as Lockheed Martin Space Systems. In a recent interview with Via Satellite, however, Ambrose explained that this rift is non-existent or, at the very least, not significant.

What exactly is the difference between NewSpace startups and “Old Space” companies? According to Ambrose, it’s simply that the new startups have a tighter focus or expertise than larger, more established companies. For example, while a NewSpace startup might focus solely on developing one particular type of satellite, companies such as Lockheed Martin Space Systems not only have to maintain their currently used systems but have to innovate and develop new technologies across the industry.

Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems

3D printing and digital design has played an important role in keeping Lockheed Martin ahead of the curve, explained Ambrose, as the company has streamlined and sped up many steps of its design and manufacturing processes thanks to the technology.

3D design alone has enabled Lockheed engineers to digitally create new products and parts and simulate them before actually having to physically manufacture them, which has cut down on prototyping times.

Similarly, the company adopted 3D printing to produce tooling parts, which has helped speed up production times. As Ambrose explained: “Tools might sound funny to you, but if you’re working on a satellite and need a special tool you’d have to design, blueprint [and] put it out for bid… so you could see weeks or months in delays. Now engineers come in and design a tool on the spot… and it’s printed in plastic in hours.”

46-inch 3D printed satellite propellant tank

In the last three months, Lockheed Space Systems has reportedly turned out 1,600 3D printed parts, including tooling parts and flight components. Notably, the company has developed a 3D printed 46-inch propellant tank, which it is currently in the process of qualifying.

The 3D printed propellant tank could allow the company to cut back significantly on cost (by about 30%) and production time compared to previous propellant tank manufacturing processes, which could take up to two years to produce.

Ambrose added that Lockheed has also partnered with 3D printing companies to develop new technologies for space manufacturing applications. “They’re creating optical devices to monitor as they lay the material so they can do quality checks on a computer in real time,” he explained.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems facility in Denver, CO

Another area where Lockheed Martin is making changes to keep up with NewSpace startups is in its product life cycles. Previously, the satellite industry operated on long 15-year contracts and launched satellites which could orbit for decades. Now, in line with the space startups, companies are looking to make products with shorter design lives in order to update and improve technologies more regularly.

This approach, adds Ambrose, could also help to stabilize the launch market because of more frequent launches. So far this mentality has applied mainly to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, but Ambrose believes it could also be useful for geosynchronous (GEO) satellites.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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