Three-dimensional printing — or “additive manufacturing” — holds profound implications for the space industry. It’s the process of making an item by adding material in successive layers. Instead of ink, a variety of materials — from plastics to titanium — are used to create three-dimensional objects.
While building the Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam) for the James Webb Space Telescope, my colleagues and I found immediate advantages in using this technology. On spacecraft, the size, weight and fit of parts have a huge impact on performance. We used low-cost 3-D printers to develop rapid prototypes, which allowed us to go through many design iterations in days, not weeks or months.
We recently made titanium parts for ground support of flight hardware with additive manufacturing, quickly going from 3-D computer models and titanium powder to completed form in just a few hours. This is just the beginning, though. We’re at the cusp of a new age of manufacturing.
Lockheed Martin is already making the leap into mission-ready components. In fact, our first spacecraft with 3-D printed parts, Juno, is currently on its way to Jupiter. When it comes to space exploration, 3-D printing drastically reduces the need for costly, complex tooling and can cut in half the time and cost of producing parts.
Our ultimate goal is to print an entire satellite. To do that, we’re experimenting with blending materials for hybrid parts. Imagine a single complex part that has different material properties at different points within it.
The U.S. needs to invest in manufacturing technology to help this future arrive. We need to evolve from prototype-building machines to ones that we can use on an assembly line — or even in space — that deliver the functionality to operate at large scales, the repeatability for trusted assembly lines and the quality to support astronauts for long-duration missions to Mars.
We are close to a future where spare parts and stock rooms could be a thing of the past. Space projects will become more capable, more affordable and faster to develop. We need advances in additive manufacturing to get us there.