US Air Force installs first 3D printed titanium part on F-22 fighter aircraft

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Jan 21, 2019 | By Thomas

The world’s most expensive fighter jet soon may be flying with parts made from a 3D printer.

In December 2018, the U.S. Air Force’s 574th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron has installed for the first time a 3D-printed, titanium-based bracket onto an operational F-22 Raptor jet during depot maintenance operations at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, according to the Air Force and Lockheed Martin, the company that produces the $150 million aircraft.

An airman removes the intake covers of an F-22 Raptor before a training mission. The first metallic 3D-printed part was installed on an operational F-22 in December at Hill AFB, Utah. (US Air Force photo/Michael Holzworth)

“One of the most difficult things to overcome in the F-22 community, because of the small fleet size, is the availability of additional parts to support the aircraft,” Robert Lewin, 574th AMXS director, said in a statement.

The Air Force noted the new titanium 3D printed part will not corrode. It replaced a corrosion-prone aluminum component in the kick panel assembly of the cockpit that is replaced 80 percent of the time during maintenance.

The use of 3D printing is not new to the Air Force. Though a first for the stealthy F-22, the service has routinely used additive manufacturing for legacy aircraft requiring parts that may be out of production due to manufacturing obsolescence, from Humvee door handles and rifle grips to gas mask modifications.

The Marine Corps last April flew an F-35B Lighting II aircraft with a part supplied by a 3D printer to replace a worn, plastic bumper on the plane’s landing gear door. Unlike the Marines’ plastic bumper, the 3D printed bracket in the F-22 is made using a powder bed fusion process that utilizes a laser to build the part layer by layer from a titanium powder. A new bracket can be ordered and delivered to the depot for installation as quickly as three days. The use of 3D printing gives maintainers the ability to acquire replacement parts on short notice without minimum order quantities.

“We had to go to engineering, get the prints modified, we had to go through stress testing to make sure the part could withstand the loads it would be experiencing — which isn’t that much, that is why we chose a secondary part,” said Robert Blind, Lockheed Martin modifications manager.

A new metallic 3D printed part (bottom) is alongside the aluminum part to be replaced on an F-22 Raptor during depot repair Wednesday at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The new titanium part will not corrode and can be procured faster and at less cost than the conventionally manufactured part. Photo by R. Nial Bradshaw/U.S. Air Force

The part will be monitored while in service and inspected when the aircraft returns to Hill AFB for maintenance. If the titanium piece holds up, the part will be installed on all F-22 aircraft during maintenance. The use of 3D printed parts in the aircraft could be expanded – there are at least five more metallic 3D printed parts planned for validation on the F-22.

“We’re looking to go a little bit further as this part proves itself out,” said Blind, as quoted in an Air Force release.

“Once we get to the more complicated parts, the result could be a 60-70 day reduction in flow time for aircraft to be here for maintenance,” said Lewin.

Posted in 3D Printing Application

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