Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) has embraced a 3-D printed titanium dome for satellite fuel tanks so big you can’t even put your arms around it.
The 46-inch- (1.16-meter-) diameter vessel completed final rounds of quality testing this month, ending a multi-year development program to create giant, high-pressure tanks that carry fuel on board satellites. The titanium tank consists of three parts welded together: two 3-D printed domes that serve as caps, plus a variable-length, traditionally-manufactured titanium cylinder that forms the body.
Satellite fuel tanks must be strong and lightweight to withstand the rigors of launch and decade-long missions in the vacuum of space. That makes titanium an ideal material, but procuring 4-foot-diameter, 4-inch-thick titanium forgings can take a year or more, making them the most challenging and expensive parts of the tank. Traditional manufacturing techniques also meant that more than 80 percent of the material was wasted. Now, 3-D printing eliminates all that lost material for the domes, and the titanium used for printing is readily available with no wait time.
Rick Ambrose, Lockheed Martin Space EVP, said that the firm's largest 3-D printed parts to date show the company is committed to a future where satellites are produced twice as fast and at half the cost. Lockheed Martin is pushing forward for even better results. For example, the company saved off 87 percent of the schedule to build the domes, reducing the total delivery timeline from two years to three months. The company self-funded this design and qualification effort as an investment in helping the firm's customers move faster and save costs,. These tanks are part of a total transformation in the way space technology is designed and delivered. Great strides are being made in automation, virtual reality design and commonality across the company's satellite product line. Lockheed Martin customers want greater speed and value without sacrificing capability in orbit, and the company is answering the call.
Even the smallest leak or flaw could be catastrophic for a satellite’s operations — Lockheed Martin engineers went to great lengths to ensure the printed tanks meet or exceed the performance and reliability required by NASA. Engineers and technicians rigorously evaluated the structure, conducting a full suite of tests to demonstrate high tolerances and repeatability. Technicians used Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing® to produce these domes in the largest 3-D printer at the company's facility in Denver. Lockheed Martin now offers the tank as a standard product option for LM 2100 satellite buses.
The tank domes are a leap in size for qualified 3-D printed materials. The largest part previously qualified was a toaster-size electronics enclosure for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite program. Lockheed Martin’s recent accomplishment continues a path of 3-D printed parts that bloomed in recent years. Since the company launched the first ever printed parts into deep space aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft, it has produced thousands of flight components and even more for tooling and prototyping using a variety of metals and composites.