Lockheed aims to build satellites 40 percent quicker, lower costs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp, known for making big, expensive military satellites that take years to complete, is setting ambitious targets for lowering costs, shortening the time it takes to build new satellites, and adopting new technologies.

The engine and tail section of a Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jet is seen in its hanger at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Rick Ambrose, who heads Lockheed’s space business, said his goal over the next three to five years was to shorten the time it took to develop a new satellite by 40 percent, and to get to a point where satellites could be reprogrammed for new missions while already in orbit.

Lockheed is scrambling to become more agile and lower its costs as the U.S. Air Force nears decisions on how to replace and augment the large missile warning and protected communications satellites that Lockheed builds.

“Ultimately (the government) is going to go to a new architecture, so by reducing the cost, it helps the government and it also helps us get to the future,” Ambrose told Reuters in an interview on Monday at the annual Satellite 2016 conference.

Boeing Co, Northrop Grumman Corp and other firms are determined to wrestle away a portion of the satellite business that Lockheed now dominates. The Air Force has not yet released its acquisition plans for the new satellite systems.

Ambrose said Lockheed had already cut $2.8 billion in cost from its main satellite portfolio, including the Space-Based Infrared System missile warning satellites and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) protected communications satellites.

It had also lowered operating costs by shutting facilities.

The company, which has built 850 satellites in past decades, was also trying to lower the cost of its Global Positioning System satellites, and had shaved 20 months off the time it took to finish the first GPS III satellite compared with the previous model it built.

Increasing the number of common parts among satellites and standardizing interfaces for payloads would also help reduce the time it took to build new satellites, Ambrose said.

Lockheed is adopting new technologies such as 3D printing, in which components are built by putting down layer after layer of powdered metals, he said. That process could lower costs and dramatically shorten production time, he said.

Ambrose said Lockheed expected to complete testing of a 3D-printed 26-inch propellant tank in the second quarter, and had just begun work on a much larger 46-inch tank.

Lockheed already has a 3D printed part on its Juno spacecraft which is due to arrive near Jupiter on July 4, and the Air Force is now testing a 3D printed part for use on the next AEHF satellite, Ambrose said.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal