RAF fighter jets successfully flown with 3D printed replacement parts

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Chips By Ryan Whitwam Jan. 6, 2014 7:28 am
While 3D printing enthusiasts in the civilian world are mostly working with smaller desktop printers, the military is looking into ways to use industrial 3D metal/plastic printing to repair machinery and vehicles. Now aerospace company BAE has confirmed that the Royal Air Force has been flying Tornado GR4 jets with replacement parts made in a 3D printer at the company’s*Warton, Lancashire facility.
The RAF is starting off slow as it experiments with 3D printing. The replacement parts used in its jets include protective covers for cockpit radios, a landing-gear guard, and air-intake door support struts.
These simple objects are exactly the kind of thing a 3D printer is currently best at. There is very little to go wrong and it is easy to check the parts for integrity. BAE can sometimes make replacement parts for under £100, a significant savings over fabricating new ones.
The 3D printers used by BAE are not anything like the consumer models made by MakerBot and others. These large-sale industrial printers operate in the same way by laying down layers of material until you have a finished part, but they are capable of making much larger and more elaborate objects. The price is also larger to match.
The RAF hopes that 3D printing replacement parts can lower its annual maintenance bill by over £1.2 million (US$1.97 million) in the next few years. There are even plans to place 3D printers on ships and near the frontline in combat zones to quickly make replacement parts where they are needed most.