Having used MakerBot 3D Printers for about five years to produce parts and designs for upcoming space projects like a fully autonomous lunar rover that could be used for NASA’s Artemis program, Lockheed Martin has now added the MakerBot METHOD X 3D printing platform to make 3D printing even more accessible for its engineers at their California R&D facility.
In aerospace, the manufacturing of low-volume products always involves expensive materials. Prototyping is a critical part of the design process for aerospace engineers as it allows them to do testing in real-world environments before heading into production. There would be unnecessary costs and time overruns should there be issues later on in production.
This is where 3D printing comes as they can create parts on-demand with little to no manual labor – straight from a CAD file, making them the ideal tools for prototyping. Any iterations are quick and easy to do with minimal cost, as oppose to going to a 3rd party vendor which would take 10x more and longer to get the actual part in your hand.
“A lot of what we’re able to help with at the 3D printing lab at ATC is really enabling our engineers to create a range of applications, like test beds, sensor mounts, and prototypes, that further advance the technologies we’re working on,” said Alyssa Ruiz, research engineer and lab manager at Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center.
The newest addition to the ATC – METHOD X – has been excellent since it can print with materials like Nylon Carbon Fiber and ABS which gives them the performance they need for testing and are dimensionally accurate thanks to a heated chamber, unlike the variable warping if you print using a typical desktop printer.
A multitude of applications are being designed for a lunar rover where Aaron Christian, a senior mechanical engineer and his teammates are using METHOD X to print a number of parts for prototyping and proof of concept for the rover project, including embedded systems housing, 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 mate together,” said Christian.
So while manufacturing in space is expensive, it stills holds appealing potential for future applications and missions. This is because 3D printing lets you harness a digital inventory of part files to print on-demand and because of the fact it can process complex designs.
“You have designed, printed, and tested the part on Earth. Now you know that, in the future, you can 3D print that same part in space because you have shown that the material and part works there,” concluded Christian.