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Lockheed: 3-D Printing, Nanotech are Future for Space Programs

May. 19, 2014 - 07:20PM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
Rick Ambrose
Rick Ambrose is executive vice president of space systems at Lockheed Martin. (Lockheed Martin)
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COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Lockheed Martin executives laid out their vision of the future at a luncheon held during the National Space Symposium, one based largely around the new capabilities of 3-D printing.

Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin’s space systems, said he has challenged his team to develop military satellites in five years or less, noting that he can do three years for commercial satellites. In order to help drive that, Lockheed is turning to 3-D printing to carve out time from the development and production phases.

As an example, Ambrose held up a bracket made from a Lockheed-developed material called APEX (Advanced Polymers Engineered for the eXtreme). Currently, an aluminum bracket developed out of traditional methods takes 28 days to produce. Lockheed can make 300 of the same bracket in one day using APEX and 3-D printing.

“These may seem like small items, but they’re going to build up eventually and be more and more part of the satellite as we go forward,” Ambrose said, before laying out his eventual goal: a satellite produced fully through 3-D printing.

That goal should be doable “within a decade,” said Mark Valerio, company vice president and general manager for military space.

The biggest hurdles involve figuring out how to 3-D print with more than one material, a challenge because of the different melting points of the materials involved. Until that problem is solved, certain parts, most notably complex electronics, may be out of reach for 3-D printing.

Even if a fully 3-D printed satellite is a ways away, the company believes targeting certain spots could help time frames immensely. Valerio pointed to propulsion tanks as one item that requires long lead times, and estimated that 3-D printing could save 18 months on that part.

Another area Lockheed is looking towards is nanotechnology, said Ken Washington, vice president of Lockheed’s STAR labs. He called it a game-changing technology on the scale of the Internet.

Nanotechnology is allowing the company to develop lighter materials, such as APEX. “Our goal is to make weight irrelevant,” Valerio said, adding that nanotech also leads to material technologies having greater conductivity.

Washington used copper as an example. A highly conductive material, copper is also very hard to work worth. But thanks to nanotechnology developments, Lockheed engineers found a way to make a copper that can be squeezed out of a tube like toothpaste.

Traditionally, as budgets come down, internal R&D funds are among the first cuts for industry. But Valerio said Lockheed is committed to fostering the development of new technologies, particularly in the 3-D printing realm.

“Now’s the time to invest more,” he said. “Now’s the time to increase the initial investment.”

Along those lines, Lockheed recently met with Pentagon officials to make sure the company’s internal investments line up with DoD’s thinking.

The meeting went well, according to Valerio.

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