How often do you stop to think about the number and variety of objects that are floating around out in space? Not just the natural celestial objects and the rocks, dust and other debris that sometimes appear to us as meteors, but the man-made objects that we’ve sent up there ourselves – the satellites, the telescopes, the unmanned crafts? Personally, I sometimes forget just how much humans have carefully placed into space for the purposes of observation and research – until I’m reminded, and then I’m awed all over again.
You may have heard of the SPIDER, or the Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-optical Reconnaissance. Researchers at Lockheed Martin have been working on it for several years, since being commissioned by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build a lightweight space telescope that could deliver the same powerful results as its larger, heavier counterparts with only a fraction of the bulk. To meet the requirements, the team at the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center (ATC) had to rethink telescopes completely.
With help from experts at the University of California, Davis, the ATC began designing a telescope based on interferometry, a relatively new technology that uses multiple tiny lenses to collect photons, which are then processed with microchips to create a high-resolution image. The team created a small silicon chip to channel the light gathered from multiple lenses, resulting in a telescopic technology that can offer the same image resolution as telescopes 10 to 20 times larger and heavier.
The technology is a dramatic departure from the traditional cylindrical telescope design – not only because it’s lighter and cheaper, but because it could technically be adapted to a variety of different flat shapes. To explore the other potential forms the SPIDER could take, the ATC team designed different arrays in SOLIDWORKS and then prototyped them on MakerBot 3D printers. Without access to the printers, it would have been impossible to create nearly as many different prototypes, for a number of reasons, one being the exorbitant cost of outsourcing to a prototyping contractor.
“We would get quotes in the thousands of dollars with an eight-week lead time for just one version of a model — I can’t imagine what 14 versions would cost,” commented Guy Chriqui, Senior Research Engineer at the ATC.
In addition, because of the sensitive nature of many of the ATC’s projects, any outsourcing comes with additional costs, piles of paperwork, and overall red tape. 3D printing in-house allowed the team to avoid all that and focus on their work without bureaucratic snags.
“For massive industrial companies like Lockheed Martin, 3D printing isn’t a foreign or confusing technology – they’ve likely tested several different versions of it over the last few decades,” MakerBot Public Relations Manager Josh Snider told 3DPrint.com. “What’s new and exciting with the desktop segment and our printers, is that engineers like Guy and Sutyen no longer have to work through dedicated internal fabrication shops, wait in a queue to receive parts, or pay the high cost of outsourcing for parts. They can design, print, test and refine in one efficient cycle without the typical price or time barriers associated with 3D printing.”
The ATC has been working with MakerBot 3D printers for several years, actually, beginning in 2013 when they used a Replicator 2 and 2X to prototype parts and tooling for the awe- and art-inspiring James Webb Space Telescope. Since then, they’ve also acquired a Replicator (5th Gen), Mini, Z18, Replicator+ and Replicator Mini+.
“They’re basically running non-stop, all day long, and have enabled a lot of really quick iterations for parts that may have otherwise slowed completion of the final product,” said Chriqui.
The 3D printers, particularly the portable Replicator Mini, have also been valuable in the field, added Sutyen Zalawadia, ATC Mechatronics Engineer.
“When we test smaller rockets, the nose cones blow off and are mostly unrecoverable, so we bring the Mini to the launch site and print different nose cones on the spot,” he said.
2017 has been a shaky year for MakerBot so far, but the devotion of such high-profile customers such as Lockheed Martin remains stable. The technology is serving their needs well, and they haven’t had to look elsewhere for anything 3D printing-related, even materials-wise. MakerBot’s new Tough PLA has enabled the ATC to print prototypes that closely resemble the final product, and the company’s True Black PLA ended up being perfect for the SPIDER as it completely absorbs light without leakage. The MakerBot Print platform helped them to increase their efficiency, as well.
“MakerBot recognizes that the user and their workflow are at the heart of our offering, not just the printer and its output,” MakerBot’s Snider told us. “By listening to professionals like ATC’s engineers calling for reliability and ease-of-use, we’ve been able to build solutions that enhance the design cycle while also saving time and money. The desktop model has proven so successful for rapid prototyping that it’s beginning to disrupt the use of larger, more expensive industrial 3D printers – especially at the big automotive and aerospace companies.”
The SPIDER won’t be going into space anytime soon. It’s still in the early stages of development, and Lockheed Martin senior fellow Alan Duncan estimates that it may still be another five or ten years until it’s completed. Without access to 3D printers, though, you can bet that it would be much, much longer. Discuss in the SPIDER forum at 3DPB.com.
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