Lockheed Martin has already built a 3D-printed part for NASA's Juno Jupiter orbiter, and now the company has installed its first 3D-printed part in a military communications satellite. When the US Air Force's sixth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF-6) launches later this year, it will contain an aluminum avionics enclosure called the Remote Interface Unit, that was designed and built using 3D printing techniques.

The Unit was made using Laser Powder Bed Fusion additive manufacturing. In this technique, a layer of fine aluminum powder is laid down and a laser controlled by a digital CAD file melts selective bits of the powder, which hardens to form a cross-section of the finished component. Then a second layer of powder is laid down and the process is repeated. When completed, the excess powder and any temporary supports are removed and the surfaces are finished.

Lockheed says that the 3D printing system allowed the company to replace multiple parts with a single 3D-printed component. This reduced design and production cycles, and Lockheed was able to make the prototype unit in 1.5 months instead of six months. Additionally, production time went from 12 hours to three hours.

The completed Unit was installed in the AEHF-6 satellite. Built in partnership with Northrop Grumann, the AEHF is part of a military satellite communications system to provide hardened global communications for tactical and strategic applications in the land, sea, and air theaters for the United States as well as Canada, the Netherlands, Britain, and other allies. Lockheed says that a single AEHF satellite has the same capacity as all five of the older Milstar satellites launched between 1994 and 2003

Lockheed intends for the new component to act as a model for other programs, including the large 3D-printed fuel tanks for the A2100 satellite bus.

"3D printing provides the ability to rapidly implement innovation by controlling production from design through implementation with one digital model," says Iris Bombelyn, vice president of Protected Communications at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. "By providing affordable, innovative solutions for our customers with a reduced timeline, we are able to adjust to the rapidly changing environment of military space."

Source: Lockheed Martin