MakerBot 3D printing technology harnessed by Lockheed Martin for NASA Lunar Rover programme

Lockheed Martin is using MakerBot 3D printing technology as it develops an AI-assisted Lunar Rover for NASA’s Artemis programme.  

Having been a user of MakerBot 3D printing technology for around five years, Lockheed Martin has recently added the MakerBot METHOD X platform to its Advanced Technology Center (ATC) in Palo Alto, where some elements of the rover’s autonomy system are designed and developed.

Among the applications of MakerBot’s 3D printers are a number of parts for prototyping, as well as proof of concept components for the rover project, such as embedded systems housings, sensor mounts and other custom parts. In printing many of these parts, which are designed to withstand desert heat, UV exposure, moisture and other environmental conditions, Lockheed Martin has leveraged MakerBot ABS and Stratasys SR-30 soluble support materials. Using these materials, MakerBot ABS helps to provide a smoother surface finish, while the dissolvable support material opens up more organic shapes which would otherwise be impossible.

“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,” commented Lockheed Martin Space Senior Mechanical Engineer Aaron Christian. “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.”

One of the parts printed with MakerBot technology for the rover was a mount for a LIDAR, a sensor that can help determine the proximity of objects around it. Designed to sit on the rover, the mount was printed in ABS rather than PLA to allow it to withstand more extreme conditions. The mount enables engineers to continuously swap out the LIDAR with different sensors, such as stereo cameras and direction antennas, while it has also been designed to ensure proper airflow so the part can be kept cool when in use. PLA was used, however, in the printing of an embedded electronics housing which protects electronics from anything that might fall on them. This part is designed to go inside the rover or in other robots at the ATC and has the required open airflow needed to cool down the system.

Lockheed Martin has looked to 3D printing because of its ability to reduce costs, the potential to harness a digital inventory of part files, and because of its design proficiencies.

“A big advantage for testing and flying 3D printed parts for space applications is that it simplifies the design,” said Christian. “You can create more complex shapes. It reduces the number of fasteners needed and part count, which is a huge cost saving because that’s one less part that has to be tested or assembled. 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.”

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