Lockheed Martin has just taken 3D printing to new heights, printing an enormous titanium dome meant for satellite fuel tanks. It’s the largest space part the company has 3D printed to date, and measures 46 inches in diameter — just under four feet. The dome is also significantly larger than the next most impressive 3D-printed structure from the company. Previously, the biggest part was the size of just a toaster, and served as an electronics enclosure for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite program.

This month, Lockheed Martin’s new structure passed its last rounds of quality testing, bringing to a close a multi-year development program that seeks to build large, high-pressure tanks capable of carrying fuel on board satellites. Constructed of titanium, the structure is comprised of three main parts, which we should point out, are not in fact all 3D printed. There are two domes that are the caps of the structure, as well as a variable-length titanium cylinder that serves as the body. Both domes were 3D printed, while the cylinder was constructed using traditional manufacturing methods.

“Our largest 3D printed parts to date show we’re committed to a future where we produce satellites twice as fast and at half the cost,” said Rick Ambrose, Lockheed Martin Space executive vice president. “And we’re pushing forward for even better results. For example, we shaved off 87 percent of the schedule to build the domes, reducing the total delivery timeline from two years to three months.”

3D printing for the fuel tank isn’t simply meant for show. Not only is the process far faster than traditional methods, but it also helps to reduce waste in the construction process. Lockheed Martin notes that non-3D printing techniques can waste more than 80 percent of materials. But 3D printing purportedly makes use of all the titanium employed in the job, making for a far more efficient process.

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“We self-funded this design and qualification effort as an investment in helping our customers move faster and save costs,” explained Ambrose. “These tanks are part of a total transformation in the way we design and deliver space technology. We’re making great strides in automation, virtual reality design and commonality across our satellite product line. Our customers want greater speed and value without sacrificing capability in orbit, and we’re answering the call.”

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