F-35 stealth fighter gets boost from 3D printing

United States’ Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is planning the use of 3D printing to replace parts on the F-35, a stealth multirole fighter. The parts will be produced at the base’s 388th Maintenance Group.

The 388th Maintenance Group commander, Col. Michael Miles said, “We’re always driving for speed, safety and quality.” In manufacturing replacement parts, 3D printing offers low-cost alternatives too, “cost-effectiveness is also a priority,” said Col. Miles.

“This new tech has great cost-avoidance potential and provides rapid repair capabilities.”

Tech Sgt. Scott Matthews, Assistant manager of the 388th Maintenance Group’s Air Force Repair and Enhancement program, also emphasizes the cost-effectiveness of additive manufacturing, “In the AFREP program, we receive parts that have been damaged and fix them so that they can be returned to the supply chain more quickly […] It’s much more cost effective for the Air Force than buying new parts.”

By 3D printing simple replacement parts like wiring harnesses, grommets, fasteners, cable splitters, and housing boxes, the base could save thousands of dollars.

Tech Sgt. Scott Matthews, holding a 3D printed F-35. Photo by Todd Cromar
Tech Sgt. Scott Matthews, holding a 3D printed F-35 in front of a Raise3D printer. Photo by Todd Cromar

Additive manufacturing in aerospace industry

Defence departments, all over the world, have seen the advantages of additive manufactured parts, and in the past few years, there has been a surge in projects exploring the uses and advantages of 3D printed parts in the aerospace industry.

Since GE’s acquisition of Arcam and Concept Laser the U.S. forces have increased their use of additive manufacturing. The 2017 purchase of Arcam and Concept Laser by GE brought a considerable amount of this know how in-house.

In 2016, the Pentagon granted $2 billion worth of contracts to projects that included 3D printing.

GE's fully 3D printed LEAP fuel nozzle. Photo via GE
GE’s fully 3D printed LEAP fuel nozzle. Photo via GE

Since 2015 the Oklahoma Air Force Base has been producing 3D printed repair parts for airplanes. The GE enabled LEAP jet engine fuel nozzles is one of the most widely known success stories for additive manufacturing in the aerospace sector

In April 2018, U.S. Air Force, began a program to develop hypersonic flight vehicles with the use of 3D printed ceramics. In a similar venture, the Air Force Research Laboratory, Ohio (AFRLinvested $2.9 million with Renaissance Service Inc. to investigate the potential of 3D printed ceramic parts for legacy airplanes.  

The Australian Defence Forces are also using additive manufacturing, For example, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) with support of RUAG Australia and the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC) is exploring the use of laser metal deposition (LMD) technology to lower the cost of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO).

As frequently reported the space industry is also using industrial 3D printing. In February 2018 SKYRORA used an EOS M400 3D printer to manufacture a nozzle for their rocket engine.

A rocket engine nozzle 3D printed on an EOS M 400 3D printer. Photo via Skyrora.

Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office

Heather Wilson, 24th Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, announced plans for an Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office. The purpose of this office is to develop predictive maintenance techniques and so-called “agile manufacturing,” potentially including 3D printing.

“We will no longer pay premiums for things we can manufacture on our own,” said Wilson. “We will leverage agile manufacturing and reform legacy sustainment processes to drive down costs and at meet warfighter needs rapidly.”

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Featured image shows three U.S Air Force F-35 soaring above the clouds. Photo via the U.S. Air Force.