The US Air Force (USAF) has installed a metallic 3D printed aircraft part on an operational F-22 Raptor fighter. The 3D aircraft printed part was installed by 574th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron maintainers during depot maintenance at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. 574th AMXS director Robert Lewin said: “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.” The printed part is designed to replace a corrosion-prone aluminium component in the kick panel assembly of the cockpit. With the use of 3D printing, maintainers can now acquire replacement parts within short notice, saving money and aircraft maintenance time. There are precedents for the use of 3D printing by the USAF. The service used the technique for legacy aircraft requiring parts that may be no longer in production due to manufacturing obsolescence.
The advantages offered by the printed bracket are that it will not corrode and can be ordered and delivered for installation quickly.
The bracket is manufactured using a powder bed fusion process that involves the use of a laser to build the part layer by layer from titanium powder.
Lockheed Martin modifications manager Robert Blind said: “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.”
The USAF will monitor the printed part while in service and inspect it when the F-22 aircraft returns to Hill AFB for maintenance.
If the part successfully clears validation, it will be approved for installation on all F-22 aircraft during maintenance.
The service is also planning many other metallic additive manufactured parts through public-private partnerships.
At least five additional metallic 3D printed parts are planned for validation on the F-22.
Back in April 2017, Lockheed Martin successfully manufactured 3D printed parts for USAF’s sixth advanced extremely high-frequency military satellite.