Air Force testing of an unarmed Minuteman III missile, a model that is set to be replaced
(Image: U.S. Air Force)
Defense company Lockheed Martin is planning to use 3D printing and virtual reality (VR) to lower the cost of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which it could soon supply to the U.S. Air Force. The company says parts like tubing, routings, bottles, and attachments could all be 3D printed.
The LGM-30 Minuteman, the United States’ only land-based ICBM in service, has been around—in various versions—since 1962, when it entered service as a deterrent during the Cold War. The current model, the Minuteman III, is due to be replaced, and a number of defense companies are now competing in the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent competition to provide the Air Force with a new ICBM.
One company competing to become the next supplier of the new ICBM is Lockheed Martin, the DC-based defense and aerospace giant and federal government contractor. Lockheed has pitched its proposal to the Air Force, saying that 3D printing and virtual reality technology could help the company lower the cost of its ICBMs while maintaining the use of more traditional missile production techniques. The defense contract could last decades, so competitors need to show that they have are prepared to use up-to-date technologies to make the missiles.
John Karas, Vice President and General Manager of Human Space Flight at Lockheed Martin, said that his company would use a three-year technology maturation and risk reduction (TMRR) period to identify areas of missile construction that could benefit from 3D printing: “If we have three years of TMR working with the customer and selecting the right aspects of [3D printing], hopefully…we’ll show the benefit of it during the design phase and recurring phase and the operation and sustainment phase.”
Karas added that parts like “tubing, routings, bottles, attachments, those kind of things” could potentially benefit from being 3D printed, reducing overall costs for both Lockheed and the Air Force, should it choose to work with the DC-based company. That, of course, is far from a given, since Lockheed will compete with Boeing and Northrop Grumman for the lucrative defense contract, with either one or two applications likely to be given the nod.
During a media event held yesterday at the Lockheed facility in Littleton, Colorado, Lockheed showcased other initiatives that could potentially swing the Air Force’s decision in the company’s favor. Guests were shown a $5 million research area called the Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL), where motion capture tools (including a motion capture suit like the one used to animate Andy Serkis’ character Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings) and virtual reality tech are being used to virtually redesign and manufacture aerospace components, including the top deck of the partially 3D printed Orion spacecraft.
Lockheed Martin's Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite, complete with 3D printed part
Lockheed Martin’s CHIL area has been used to plan the manufacturing flow of current products, and could potentially be used on a replacement for the Minuteman III ICBM. The tools at the facility could even be used to upgrade missile launch facilities. “We have to update all the silos,” Karas said. “We have to change the air conditioning; we have to change the motor generators and all those things inside the silo, and they were built a long time ago.”
This week has been a busy one for Lockheed Martin, with the defense company also announcing that the Air Force’s sixth Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite, built by Lockheed, will utilize a 3D printed Remote Interface Unit, an aluminum box used to hold avionic circuits. This part is the first 3D printed component to be used in a Lockheed Martin military satellite, and helped reduce manufacturing time from six months to just 45 days. Assembly time was reduced from 12 hours to three.
Brian O’Connor, Vice President of Production Operations at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, delivered the news about the 3D printed satellite part, and also confirmed that the company is using large metal electron beam additive manufacturing processes to build rocket fuel tanks. Lockheed’s electron beam 3D printersare supplied by metal 3D printing specialist Sciaky.