Why Lockheed Martin Bet Big on Large-Scale 3D Printing

By Judy Quinn |  July 18, 2014

Could it be possible one day to “print out” a full-size cargo plane, at a fraction of the time and cost of traditional manufacturing?

That’s part of the vision at Lockheed Martin, the $45 billion aerospace and defense company. And Lockheed has been making some big strides. Some of Lockheed’s 3D-printed components are onboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which is on its way to Jupiter. And this past April, the company also unveiled several large fuel tank prototypes for a satellite (pictured at right). That project, a collaboration with partner RedEye, involved some of the largest 3D-printed parts ever made.

Lockheed certainly has good reason to push the envelope on 3D printing. After all, the company often works on a very large scale, making products like jet fighters and Atlas rockets.

“Something that used to take months to manufacture can now be done in a matter of hours,” says Steve Betza, Lockheed’s Corporate Director of Advanced Manufacturing & Development (pictured at left). In Lockheed’s satellite business, 3D printing — in this case, cranking out titanium components — has led to an average reduction in cycle time of 43 percent and a reduction in cost of 48 percent.

The fuel tank prototypes made with RedEye were made in about two weeks, as compared to six months if traditional machining methods had been used. The process also cut the typical cost in half. These tanks will be used for form, fit, and function testing.

Betza says that 3D printing, which can use lighter polymers than traditional manufacturing materials, can also result up to a 50 percent reduction in the weight of products. Every pound of weight saved on a spacecraft structure allows for an extra pound of useful payload. And when the weight of an overall spacecraft is reduced, a smaller booster or launch vehicle can be used to send it into space, saving still more costs. “The business case builds itself,” Betza says.

Lockheed, as the Pentagon’s biggest supplier, faces significant pressure to deploy cost-saving innovations right now in the face of reductions in defense spending. “We’ve been working in this area since the 80s, but the technology is now catching up, and we are now poised on a wide range of prototypes and products,” says Bill Flite, Senior Manager of Advanced Manufacturing at Lockheed.

A company-produced video is below…