Lockheed Martin 3D-prints lunar rover parts

The aerospace and defense multinational Lockheed Martin, working with General Motors, is developing a new fully-autonomous lunar rover that could be used for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return manned missions to the Moon. Lockheed Martin is carrying out the early design and development for parts of the rover’s autonomy systems at its Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, California, home to a 3D printer lab that now includes a new Makerbot Method X that can print parts in materials such as nylon carbon fibre and ABS that are dimensionally accurate without any signs of warping. 

Lockheed Martin has used its Method X to print a number of parts for prototyping and proof of concept for the lunar rover project.

Aaron Christian, senior mechanical engineer, Lockheed Martin Space, says that the company uses multiple MakerBot printers, adding: “I will design a part, print it, and have it in my hand hours later. This allows me to quickly test the 3D-printed part, identify weak points, adjust the model, send it back to print overnight, and then have the next iteration in the morning. 3D printing lets me do fast and iterative design, reducing wait times for a part from weeks to hours.”

He adds: “We’re in the very early stages of development and the rover we have at ATC is a testbed that we designed and developed in-house. This affordable modular testbed allows us to make quick changes using 3D printing to change the design for other applications, whether it be military, search and rescue, nuclear applications and just extreme environment autonomy needs.”

The Method X is used to print a number of parts for prototyping and proof of concept for the rover project. Amongst these prototype parts is a a mount for a LIDAR, which is essentially a form of radar that uses a laser beam instead of radio waves to detect objects and determine their distance by measuring the reflected light to return to the sensor. The same system in most self-driving cars. For the lunar rover, the same mount is also used for different sensors, such as a stereo camera, direction antenna, RGB camera, or a rangefinder. The mount has a complex shape, to handle the different sensors and to allow enough airflow to keep the parts cool, which would have been difficult to produce conventionally so it was 3D-printed in ABS.

Another example is an embedded electronics housing, designed to protect electronics inside the rover or another robot from anything that might fall on them. This was printed in PLA, which is not as robust as ABS but is strong enough thanks to its hexagonal shape. 

Lockheed Martin is also using 3D printing for production parts that will end up going into space on different platforms. Christian explains: “A big advantage for testing and flying 3D-printed parts for space applications is that it simplifies the design. You can create more complex shapes. It reduces the number of fasteners needed and part count, which is a huge cost savings because that’s one less part that has to be tested or assembled.” 

He adds: “This also opens up for future in-situ assembly in space. 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 work there.” The advantage of this approach is that it’s cheaper to fly bulk materials into space and print parts when needed rather than having to fly and then store the individual parts, possibly on multiple trips.

Christian concludes: “The digital inventory concept helps push our digital transformation forward—you have digital designs that you can ship up, where you just print the parts and have them assembled on location.”

It’s worth noting that this concept is equally applicable here on Earth, particularly given the logistical problems that the pandemic has caused, and the resulting price rises. You can find more information on Lockheed Martin here, and on the Method X from makerbot.com.

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