Lockheed Martin is no stranger to 3D-printed parts. Back in April 2017, as the company became more comfortable with the technology, it used additive manufacturing to build parts for military satellites. The company printed an electronic enclosure made out of aluminum to hold avionic circuits, and it was about the size of a toaster.
Now, Lockheed Martin is going bigger, much bigger. Technicians at Lockheed's facility in Denver used Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing to 3D-print a pair of titanium domes with a 46-inch diameter and 4-inch thick walls. The domes will be welded to a titanium cylinder (manufactured with more traditional methods) to serve as a nearly eight-foot-long (94.8") satellite fuel tank.
How big are the domes? Luckily, Lockheed crunched the numbers for us. One dome can hold:
- 1,191 cups of coffee
- 530 glazed donuts
- 6,225 ping pong balls
- 310,000 M&Ms
According to Lockheed, 3D printing just made economic sense for the project. The company cut the delivery timeline by 87 percent, from two years to three months. It also created less waste throughout the process. If the company used traditional manufacturing methods to build the domes, more than 80 percent of the material would have been wasted.
Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing takes titanium wire and prints it in a molten state. The technology was created by Chicago-based Sciaky, and it can also print in tantalum, and nickel-based alloys.
Since the fuel tanks are headed to space, the construction has to be durable yet lightweight. The satellite is going to be in service for ten years, but it also needs to reach its destination through a violent launch — which is why probably why they chose titanium.
Engineers put the domes through rigorous testing to meet NASA's standards as the smallest imperfection could spell disaster.
The Lockheed team hopes to move beyond the fuel tank parts and one day print an entire satellite.