A Look Inside Lockheed Martin’s Space-Age Operations

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At Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, we have the privilege of working for ambitious customers; their plans include missions to Mars, examinations of asteroids, and scientific explorations that push ever deeper into the solar system. Whether military, government, or commercial, they are doing exciting work, and to the extent they succeed, we all benefit – from stronger national security, better communication and navigation, more accurate weather and climate measurement, and greater knowledge of our universe.

Our job is to deliver the cutting-edge technologies they require. For example, as part of NASA’s Orion program, we’re responsible for making a spacecraft that will ultimately take the first humans to Mars. And, especially in recent years, as prolonged global economic challenges have rippled through the aerospace industry, we also need to make those technologies more affordable. That requires constant innovation, in both our products and our own operations.

One way we’ve responded is with expanding the use of virtual reality and 3D simulation to design satellites and spacecraft. Before, ideas and plans for space vehicles took shape on paper. No longer. By creating fully realized concepts virtually, we are able to test and refine designs, and spot errors while they are much easier and less costly to fix – before the physical build. Another line of innovation has us leveraging the growing capabilities of additive manufacturing. Given the nature of our business, the economics are compelling to move quickly beyond just creating prototypes with 3D printing. Already today, we print actual parts for satellites; one day, we will print an entire satellite.

More than any single design or manufacturing technology, however, it’s the integration of these technologies into a seamless, digital tapestry that is proving most valuable. We’ve created an end-to-end electronic domain that connects all elements of product development – conceptualization, design and analysis, simulation and optimization, manufacturing, assembly and test, and operations and sustainment. Because the tapestry weaves these together, we can now, for example, 3D-print satellite parts directly from the original computer design model. With no chance of information being lost in translation, the process minimizes waste and cuts cycle time.

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These new digital capabilities are powerful, but we always emphasize that the power is going into the hands of the people who use them. A fully integrated digital tapestry enables them to be more innovative, because it allows them to collaborate, simulate, create, communicate, and incubate ideas.

Collaborate. We know our teams perform best when they achieve “collective genius.” When we collaborate, we expand our range of ideas. Part of this comes from tapping into individual members’ different talents, perspectives, and experiences – so we must be inclusive. Another part comes from sharing information. Through the Digital Tapestry, system development teams working across all engineering disciplines, along with manufacturing, procurement, and quality, view the same information, move easily between steps, and take collaboration to a new level.

Simulate. As mentioned above, virtual reality and 3D-simulation technology are changing how we design systems; they allow designers to see at angles and through layers that they wouldn’t be able to in a two-dimensional presentation. Lockheed Martin has several virtual laboratories; the one I am most excited about is called CHIL, for Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory. In this Denver facility, we outfit engineers and manufacturers in VR equipment and let them “step into” new spacecraft designs. Once inside, they appear at human scale, and are able to try out ideas and make adjustments together — and all the while, the system produces a constant stream of automatically updated specifications. Using the CHIL, engineers have been able to work on processes virtually before releasing them to manufacturing; identify bottlenecks, collisions, and worker challenges before they could become issues; improve resource utilization and material flow; improve producibility; reduce rework; and mitigate program risk.

Create. A company that depends on its people’s creative capacities should find ways to keep building them. Recently, more than 150 of our employees took part in an additive-design competition where we amped up that old, familiar engineering exercise: the egg drop. Teams had to show up with a 3D-printed solution, designed and built in-house, capable of protecting their egg from the impact of a five-story drop. As well as inspiring a lot of creativity, the competition reinforced important lessons, such as the need to understand design restrictions, and to investigate the available materials and how they changed tolerances and properties.

Communicate. Collaborative creativity depends on rich exchanges of information and opinion, and the digital environment we build must allow for that. Offline, too, communication skills are vital to exchanging ideas on complex matters. In particular, we try to put the emphasis on good listening. That means listening to customers to truly understand their needs, listening to each other as we suggest ideas or recount relevant experiences, and even listening to ourselves when we have a gut instinct about something but may feel hesitant to speak up.

Incubate. Innovation isn’t as simple as having an “aha” moment — there has to be a pathway for taking creative spark to commercial viability. To help pave the way, we have established Innovation Garages at our major sites which serve as incubators for our engineers’ best ideas. When they have a notion for a project, they present it to the leadership team, which then provides funding for teams to mature their concepts. The objective is to move from idea to rapid prototype in about 16 weeks. In one extreme case, a team assembled a cube satellite over just one weekend that constituted an important proof of concept. It showed how cube satellite systems could be developed using open-source and off-the-shelf technologies already commercially available.

Importantly, just as digital capabilities enable these elements of innovation, they also put new emphasis on certain qualities we need in our workforce. Increasingly, these are the strengths we are seeking in our people — that they be collaborative and imaginative, comfortable with working in virtual worlds and with listening for richer understanding. We need people with entrepreneurial spirit, motivated not just to have bright ideas but to get them to the launch pad.

We stand on the cusp of a new space age, and our innovations today will enable our customers to venture into new territory. With all our functions, from design engineers to the production line, digitally connected, using the same data and ensuring seamless operations, we will produce new solutions, solve implacable problems, and change the world. With a digital tapestry in place, it will become more clear than ever: stratospheric success always comes down to people.

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