MakerBot 3D printing deployed to improve autonomous lunar rover design for NASA

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin exploited MakerBot 3D printing to design and test elements of an AI-powered lunar rover that could be deployed during that of NASA mission to return to the moon.

Using the MakerBot, Lockheed Martin METHOD X Advanced technology center (ATC) was able to accelerate the R&D of vehicle system housings and sensor mounts. 3D printed from ABS, these prototypes are designed to withstand all conditions, from scorching desert heat to UV exposure or humidity, making them ideal tools for developing a capable rover. to endure the harsh realities of space.

“The rover we have at ATC is a test bed that we designed and developed in-house,” says Aaron Christian, senior mechanical engineer at Lockheed Martin Space. “This affordable modular test bench allows us to make rapid changes using 3D printing to change the design of other applications, be it military, search and rescue, d nuclear applications and simply the need for autonomy in extreme environments. ”

“Autonomous vehicles are an optimal way to explore the surface of the Moon and to continue space exploration on Mars and beyond.”

Lockheed Martin ATC

True to its stated mission of exploring “next generation and next generation after next” technologies, Lockheed Martin has a long history of contracting with 3D printing companies to aid in its aerospace projects. Last year, the company began working with Relativity Space to develop rockets capable of launching potentially dangerous cryogenic management systems into orbit for testing.

To meet its space software needs, the company also turned to Sigma Labs and its in-process quality assurance technology PrintRite3D, but in other areas it also sought to develop its internal capabilities, by opening a $ 350 million satellite production plant with 3D printing and “virtual immersion environments”.

Meanwhile, in its California ATC, Lockheed Martin has built a small-scale 3D printing lab, but its importance within the entrepreneur’s larger R&D setup should not be underestimated. The facility has been using MakerBot technology for about five years now, including machines that allow its team to create test beds to evaluate parts under real conditions, before they go into production.

By manufacturing these mockups in-house, the company would be able to iterate its designs ten times faster and at lower cost than if they were outsourced, while allowing it to better respond to customer demands.

“There is a huge benefit to having the 3D printers on site,” says Alyssa Ruiz, laboratory manager at ATC. “Without them, we would have to send parts for machining, which can lengthen lead times and increase costs. The 3D printers in our lab help with prototyping efficiency, part output, and ensuring we can stay on time and on budget.

Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center is now home to MakerBot’s METHOD X 3D printer. Photo via MakerBot.


Having recently adopted the METHOD X, ATC engineers have now started using its carbon fiber and ABS nylon printing capabilities to produce parts for a rover it is developing alongside General Motors. Built as part of NASA’s Artemis mission, the lunar vehicle is expected to be fully autonomous, allowing it to explore larger areas of the moon’s surface and conduct more ambitious scientific research.

To ensure that their prototype rover is rugged enough to survive such long missions on its own, the ATC team therefore began to 3D print models and expose them to lunar conditions. When produced in combination with Stratasys Soluble Substrates SR-30, these ABS parts feature a sufficiently smooth surface finish, with ideal properties for the job.

One of those components that engineers were able to optimize and iterate on is support for the rover’s LIDAR detection system, which is essential for its navigation. Thanks to MakerBot prototyping, the team has now managed to come up with a modular solution, which can be fitted with different camera, antenna or rangefinder accessories, and has built-in channels to prevent overheating.

The lunar vehicle’s integrated electronics box has also been steadily developed using 3D printing, to such an extent that it is now able to protect its delicate internal components from being dropped or dropped. As a result, even though the team says the rover remains at an “early stage of development,” they believe the technology behind its R&D could help reduce costs and open up design possibilities, in other manufacturing applications. spatial.

“This [3D printing] reduces the amount of fasteners required and the number of parts, which represents a huge saving, ”adds Christian. “It also paves the way for a future in-situ assembly in space. You designed, printed and tested the coin on Earth. Now you know that in the future you will be able to 3D print that same part in space because you have shown that the material and the part work there. “

An engineer modeling the rover's 3D printed LIDAR radar support prototype.
An engineer modeling the rover’s 3D printed LIDAR radar support prototype. Photo via MakerBot.

A “high-performance” machine?

Designed to fill a gap in the market between office and industrial systems, the METHOD X has increasingly proven itself capable of producing parts for heavy end use applications. Last January, the engineering firm produced CALLUM discovered he was able to deploy the machine to 3D print prototypes, tooling and low volumes of parts for a limited edition Aston Martin.

Likewise, the motorsport engineering company Prodrive used the METHOD X to produce more than 30 auto parts for the Hunter T1 vehicle of its Bahrain Raid Xtreme team, during the 2021 Dakar Rally. Due to the pandemic, the team were forced to streamline the development of the T1, but they reportedly found the adoption of 3D printing to be ideal for both rapid prototyping of parts and for maintenance.

Elsewhere, specialist in propulsion systems Triton space technologies also used METHOD X for space testing purposes, 3D printing a working valve prototype for a client linked to the Moon last year. By doing so, the company was able to reduce their turnaround time from days to hours, while controlling their production process more flexibly.

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The featured image shows a render of Lockheed Martin’s AI powered lunar rover. Image via MakerBot.

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