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Lockheed pitches 3-D printed parts for next-generation ICBM program

April 3, 2017 (Photo Credit: USAF/Kyla Gifford)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Col. — If Lockheed Martin makes it to the next stage of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent competition, it plans to use 3-D printing and virtual reality to help drive down the cost of next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Although Lockheed’s GBSD proposal laid out design and production using “tried and true” techniques, it wants to use the three year technology maturation and risk reduction (TMRR) period to isolate components or structures that could be constructed via 3-D printing, said John Karas, the company’s vice president of the GBSD program.

“If we have three years of TMR working with the customer and selecting the right aspects of it [3-D printing], hopefully …  we’ll show the benefit of it during the design phase and recurring phase and the operation and sustainment phase,” he told reporters April 3 during a trip to the company’s facility in Littleton, Colorado.

Lockheed has begun experimenting with additive manufacturing — the technical term for the process — to create large structural pieces, such as nonloadbearing parts of the Orion spacecraft. The company announced Monday that the sixth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF-6) satellite will be its first military satellite launched with a 3-D printed part onboard.

"Parts like tubing, routings, bottles, attachments, those kind of things, that's what we're experimenting with” for GBSD, Karas said. “And our customer is very risk adverse, so it's a technology that during our TMR period, we would have to prove to the customer."

Lockheed hasn't determined exactly how much money the Air Force could save from using 3-D printing, but "we think there's a big benefit. It's just working with the customer to show those,” he added

During the media visit, Lockheed officials highlighted a room called the Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL) that also could help shave costs from the GBSD proposal. The CHIL is stocked with motion capture tools — including a full motion-capture suit like the one used by Andy Serkis in the "Lord of the Rings" movies — and off-the-shelf virtual reality equipment that have been adapted by the company. 

GPS III and Orion were the first use cases for the CHIL, and Karas said the simulation suite allowed the company to virtually redesign and manufacture the top deck of the Orion spacecraft — essentially allowing Lockheed to practice production and make changes without needing to rebuild physical prototypes.

Karas was hesitant to talk about how Lockheed employed virtual reality tools when creating the company’s GBSD proposal, but said in other programs CHIL has been utilized to lay out the manufacturing flow of a product — hinting the same may have been done for the next-generation nuclear missile program.

If Lockheed moves forward in the competition, it could also use that suite of virtual tools tackle an often overlooked part of the GBSD requirements: upgrading the current missile launch facilities.

“We have to update all the silos. We have to change the air conditioning, we have to change the motor generators and all those things inside the silo, and they were built a long time ago,” he said. “Could you imagine if you had to take those things out and put these things in, what that [virtual reality system] would help you do? You could map the whole inside. You know where to unbolt, you know what things you have to subassemble, what things you have to put in.

Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop Grumman are all competing to replace the current Minuteman III missiles, and up to two of those companies potentially will move forward to the GBSD program’s next phase.

Lockheed spent about $5 million to build CHIL  in 2010. Darin Bolthouse, the lab’s manager, said the initial investment has been repaid several times over, calculating about $10 million in savings.
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