Advanced Materials Pave the Way for Manufacturing Innovation

Additive Manufacturing and a New Revolution in Design Engineering

Aerospace manufacturers need to design for extreme environmental conditions – using ruggedized parts that can withstand the high temperatures of a jet engine or speeds in excess of 1,000 miles per hour.

In the quest for high-performance parts, scientists are formulating advanced materials that can not only endure these extreme conditions, but also contribute to platforms that are stronger, lighter and more affordable.

To meet the challenges of tomorrow, industry and government are partnering to accelerate the transition of these new materials into production. Off to a head start, Lockheed Martin’s APEX, or Advanced Polymers Engineered for the Extreme, is changing the complexion of manufacturing today.

Speaking of the Future: Advanced Manufacturing

Engineering for the Extreme
APEX thermoplastic nanocomposites are lighter-weight, flexible materials designed to replace machined aluminum parts in aerospace platforms. This results in lower manufacturing costs, greater performance and reduced lead times.

“APEX is in a class by itself in terms of performance envelope,” said Slade Gardner, Lockheed Martin Fellow in Advanced Manufacturing and Materials for the corporation’s Space Systems Company. “APEX has affordable manufacturability, high mechanical and thermal performance, and excellent physical properties.”


Designed to be producible and affordable, APEX was created to replace aluminum structures at half the weight and cost.

“We overachieved on the cost performance, and quite typically, we see an order of magnitude improvement in cost for injected molded APEX parts compared to traditional machined aluminum.”

The Roots of APEX
While developing advanced polymers for 3-D printing applications, Gardner established materials development and in-house materials processing capabilities, and then recruited a team of researchers to fortify a proposal for a Lockheed Martin-funded nanotechnology project. By 2008, the team had developed the formulation for APEX and, by 2009, was building prototype parts for a number of Lockheed Martin customers.

In 2010, the team began producing prototype spacecraft hardware using APEX, including a forward-destruct bracket built in partnership with Lockheed Martin Space Technology Advanced Research Laboratories, STAR Labs, and the Strategic and Missile Defense line of business.

The bracket came to serve as a hallmark demonstration of the advantages that APEX offered. It proved to be 93 percent cheaper and 15 percent lighter, and it outperformed the aluminum baseline part in mechanical testing.

“The aluminum part had a production lead time of 28 days; conversely, we molded 300 APEX parts in one single workday,” Gardner said. “APEX changes the way we manufacture. The cost savings are awesome, but the power of advanced manufacturing is what is special.”


New Applications
APEX is a mature technology, but it is still under development for specific program requirements related to the challenges of operating in harsh environments. For the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense program, the team conducted testing at 520 degrees to better understand APEX performance for a specific mission condition.

The team is also evaluating APEX for space environment galvanic corrosion and developing lifetime predictions for APEX in specific cyclic environments.  

“Although APEX is mature, we still have to meet these types of special requirements,” Gardner said. “However, we do have an established supply chain, a validated design database and manufacturing and production specifications. And, we’re ready to manufacture with it.”

Developmental efforts are underway to extend APEX to other uses. The team is working to combine injection-molded APEX with similar chemistry long-fiber composite materials to achieve a hybrid structure that maximizes affordability while providing high-performance composite characteristics.

The resulting product could have many potential applications, one of which could be to produce a next-generation, low-cost solid rocket motor case. The team has also molded large nose cones to demonstrate the ability to produce large-scale injection-molded APEX parts.

“Our nose cones represent a 98 percent cost savings and a 99 percent improvement in lead time,” Gardner said. “We molded 40 nose cones in two work shifts.”

In addition to nose cones, the team is nearly finished with a manufacturing demonstration of injection-molded components for the next generation of the A2100 satellite bus, Lockheed Martin’s primary satellite platform. The demonstration seeks to compare the parts to their aluminum counterparts for program consideration.


Partnering for Tomorrow
Along with APEX, Lockheed Martin is committed to the development and deployment of advanced lightweight metals to the industrial sector. To achieve this goal, the company has become a Tier 1 member of the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute (ALMMII).

Based in Detroit, the institute is part of the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), a government-led initiative to revitalize U.S. manufacturing through a nationwide network of manufacturing hubs.

“Advanced lightweight metals have huge implications for U.S. manufacturing and the economy. At ALMMII, our mission is to leverage the expertise of academic and industry partners to fully develop these technologies and successfully deploy them across the industrial sector,” said Larry Brown, ALMMII executive director. “We are excited for Lockheed Martin’s contributions to this mission and the company’s continuing efforts to accelerate the adoption of advanced metals in manufacturing.”

July 21, 2014

Learn more about Scientific Discovery