Last week at the Farnborough Air Show in England, Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) unveiled the latest concept project from its top-secret "Skunk Works" research facility.
Dubbed the Polecat, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is essentially a 90-foot flying wing that is capable of high-altitude flight. Although the Polecat is not ready for prime time, it might prove a worthy successor to other "Skunk Works" alumni, such as the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes and the radar-invisible F-117 stealth fighter.
But what really separates the Polecat from those past projects, and makes it so interesting from an investor's perspective, is that the vehicle was manufactured from "printed" parts rather than traditional machine-tooled components.
The parts are created through a technique more commonly known as 3-D rapid prototyping. Designs for individual parts are fed into a computer-aided design (CAD) system, then sent to an oven-sized box that serves as the "printer." Inside, a laser fuses together polymers or metal powder layer by layer until the part takes shape.
Various industries have used such processes for years to make prototype parts. But Lockheed has successfully constructed almost an entire airframe using the same process. This cuts manufacturing costs by reducing the numbers of tools needed to make a part, while dramatically reducing fabrication and assembly time.
It's too soon to know whether the process can be applied to other military or commercial aircraft. Obviously, Lockheed will need to manufacture those products to a much higher standard in order to safeguard their pilots and passengers. (Remember, the Polecat is unmanned.) But the 3-D manufacturing processes will only continue to improve with time.
As it does, Lockheed will likely use the process to gain a leg up on competitors such as Boeing (NYSE: BA ) and Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC ) in unmanned aerial vehicles (where it currently trails the latter two companies). It may also apply the advanced manufacturing concepts to everything from commercial aircraft and spacecraft to its many other business lines. Ultimately, these many other applications -- and the potential profits they could produce -- give Lockheed's latest "Skunk Works" project a rather pleasing bouquet.
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As an investor, Fool contributor Jack Uldrich has been sprayed by his share of skunks in the past. He is also the author of two books on nanotechnology, including Investing in Nanotechnology: Think Small, Win Big. He does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned in this article.