RAF Tornado fighter jets, built by UK aerospace and defence company BAE Systems, have, for the first time ever, flown with end-use parts produced on a 3D printer. The parts in question are metallic but, notably, non-critical parts and the flights were test flights.
Regardless, this is a significant development and another step forward in the use of 3D printing for manufacturing applications. According to BAE Systems, the in-flight 3D printed parts include protective covers for cockpit radios and guards for power take-off shafts and they were used in test flights from the firm’s airfield at Warton in Lancashire a couple of weeks ago.
BAE Systems has employed 3D printing technologies for many years, mostly behind closed doors but also presenting on prototyping applications and more lately, potential manufacturing applications at some B2B industry events. As is the case across the vast aerospace industry sector, the reasoning behind the in-depth research and testing with 3D printing is the economic benefits it can bring — in this particular case, BAE quotes that optimized, in-flight 3D printed replacement parts could reasonably cut the RAF’s maintenance and service bill by more than £1.2m over four years. In light of the budget cuts, this is not insignificant, particularly if you roll it out, past the RAF and into the Navy too.
Accordingly, the engineering team at BAE Systems are currently looking to 3D print the equivalent parts that have been tested for four squadrons of Tornado GR4 aircraft, currently based at RAF Marham in Norfolk.
However, Mike Murray, the Head of Airframe Integration at BAE Systems, commented on these developments but pointed to wider areas of application: “You are suddenly not fixed in terms of where you have to manufacture these things. You can manufacture the products at whatever base you want, providing you can get a machine there, which means you can also start to support other platforms such as ships and aircraft carriers. And if it’s feasible to get machines out on the front line, it also gives improved capability where we wouldn’t traditionally have any manufacturing support.”