Boeing plans to build 3D-printed modular satellites

The company will adopt new manufacturing processes to save costs.


Boeing is known for building huge, high-end satellites that cost roughly $150 million each, but that could change in the future. The aerospace corporation plans to adopt new production practices that involve the use of modular 3D-printed parts and far fewer workers than it's used to, according to The Wall Street Journal. Its current procedures that require customized manual assembly cost too much and take far too long -- apparently, you can count the number of satellites it builds in a year on two hands. Boeing's satellite business chief Paul Rusnock told the WSJ that the company can't continue what it's been doing and remain competitive.

Companies that maker smaller, cheaper satellites are already using modular components to save costs and pump out as many as possible. Airbus and a startup called OneWeb (a venture founded by Richard Branson's Virgin and Qualcomm), for instance, are in the midst of building an automated assembly line in Florida. It'll be capable of cranking out hundreds of small satellites a year that cost roughly $500,000 each.

Boeing likely won't be able to achieve the same level of productivity since it's working on bigger satellites, but it'll be able to build a lot more units in a year. Rusnock says there's nothing stopping the company from "realizing huge reductions in production schedules." Its ultimate goal is to find a way for its spacecraft business to replicate its aircraft division's speed: it only takes the company 11 days to build a whole 737.

The private space corporation has already begun implementing 3D printing and some of its other new manufacturing processes in its Los Angeles facility. It's now looking for ways to use them for select commercial projects, and it's also working on adapting them for its different models. The downside to modular satellites is that they can only last around 7 to 8 years, half the 15-year lifespan of their highly customized hand-assembled counterparts. However, that might not exactly be a bad thing: Boeing's clients are already talking about launching new satellites with upgraded technologies more regularly. The cheaper, modular versions will give them the opportunity to reach that goal.