space project 3D printing helps explore new frontiers in space
Editor: Alexander Stark
United States – For its upcoming space projects, Lockheed Martin plans to expand its use of Makerbot 3D printers to produce parts and designs for a lunar rover. The AM solution must allow engineers to design, develop and test autonomous systems and processes.
Lockheed Martin is a global aerospace and defense company focused on next-generation and next-generation technologies. In alliance with General Motors, Lockheed Martin is developing a new fully autonomous lunar rover that could be used for NASA’s Artemis program. It’s a fitting team that pays homage to the original Apollo rover, which GM also had a hand in its development.
Some elements of the rover’s autonomy system’s early design and development are performed at Lockheed Martin’s state-of-the-art R&D facilities in Palo Alto, USA, the Advanced Technology Center (ATC), which is well equipped with a variety of cutting-edge tech, including a lab full of 3D printers.
The latest addition to the ATC 3D printing lab is the Makerbot Method X 3D printing platform. With this system, the team can print parts in materials such as nylon carbon fiber and l ‘ABS, giving them the performance they need for precise testing – and thanks to the device’s heated chamber, parts are dimensionally accurate without the variable warping that accompanies a typical desktop 3D printer.
“I will design a part, print it and have it in my hands a few hours later. This allows me to quickly test the 3D printed part, identify weak points, adjust the model, send it back to printing overnight, then having the next iteration in the morning.
“At ATC, we have several Makerbot printers that allow for fast turnaround times,” said Aaron Christian, Senior Mechanical Engineer, Lockheed Martin Space. “3D printing allows me to do fast, iterative design, reducing wait times for a part from weeks to hours.”
Lockheed Martin engineers are testing a multitude of applications designed for the lunar rover. Christian and his teammates are using Method X to print a number of parts for prototyping and proof of concept for the rover project, including the on-board systems enclosure, sensor mounts, and other custom parts. “The Makerbot Method X produces dimensionally tolerant parts right out of the box – and for all sorts of projects, you can print multiple parts that can fit together.”
Many of these parts are printed in Makerbot ABS and designed to withstand desert heat, UV exposure, humidity, and other environmental conditions. In combination with Stratasys SR-30 soluble supports, parts printed with Makerbot ABS are designed to provide a smoother surface finish compared to detachable supports. Printing with soluble supports also allows for more organic shapes that would otherwise have been impossible to produce through traditional machining. 3D printing encourages engineers to think outside the box like never before.
“We are in the very early stages of development and the rover we have at ATC is a test bed that we designed and developed in-house. This affordable modular test rig allows us to make quick changes using 3D printing to modify the design for other applications, whether military, search and rescue , nuclear applications and simply the need for autonomy in extreme environments,” said Christian.
One of the parts printed for the rover was a mount for a Lidar, a sensor that can help determine the proximity of objects around it. Widely used in autonomous vehicles, Lockheed Martin uses Lidar in many of its autonomous projects. The stand was designed to sit on top of the rover, a fully modular robot system, so it was printed in ABS, allowing it to handle more extreme conditions than typical PLA. The mount also allows engineers to continuously exchange Lidar with different sensors, such as a stereo camera, directional antenna, RGB camera, or rangefinder. It has a complex organic shape, which can be difficult to obtain by traditional machining. The stand also has plenty of access to ensure good airflow to keep the room cool and temperature regulated on the robots.
The on-board electronics box is designed to go inside the rover or in other robots at ATC. The case was developed to protect the electronic components from anything that could potentially fall on them. Although it was printed in PLA, due to its hexagonal shape it offers solid sturdiness. Its design also lends itself well to the open airflow needed to cool the system while protecting the device.
In addition to printing prototypes, Lockheed Martin uses 3D printing for production parts that will go into various space platforms.
“A big advantage to testing and flying 3D printed parts for space applications is that it simplifies the design. You can create more complex shapes. It reduces the number of fasteners needed and the number of parts, which represents a huge cost savings as it is one less part that needs to be tested or assembled,” Christian noted. “It also paves the way for future in situ assembly in space. You designed, printed and tested the part on Earth. Now you know that in the future you will be able to 3D print that same part in space because you have shown that the material and the part work there.
Manufacturing in space is expensive but attractive for future applications and missions. Now, bulk materials can be transported into space to be used to 3D print multiple parts and structures, rather than flying each part individually. Combining this with a digital inventory of part files, 3D printing in space reduces costs by eliminating the need for storage and multiple trips, which make flights expensive.
“The concept of digital inventory helps drive our digital transformation forward – you have digital designs that you can ship, where you just print the parts and have them assembled on site,” added Christian.