US Air Force Installs 3D Printed Part On Operational F-22 Fighter Aircraft

- Jan 25, 2019-

The US Air Force 574th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron installed a 3D printed metal part on an operational F-22 fighter aircraft. The technology will make a significant difference in speeding up the replacement of damaged parts. 

The US Air Force installed a metallic 3D printed part on an operational F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft to replace an aluminum component which is damaged due to the fact that it is prone to corrosion.

“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,” explains Robert Lewin, 574th AMXS director.

The aircraft, which was manufactured by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, went out of production in 2011 but there are still units in operation. As a result, parts are hard to come by but 3D printing can save money and maintenance time.

The replacement part in question is a secondary bracket component used in the kick panel assembly of the cockpit. It was installed by the 574th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron maintainers at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, during depot maintenance.

However, it was printed by Lockheed Martin using a powder bed fusion process which uses a laser to build up a part from titanium powder.

“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,” explains Lockheed Martin modifications manager Robert Blind.

Further 3D Printed Parts in the Works

Unlike the original corrosion-prone aluminium F-22 Raptor fighter component, the 3D printed titanium replacement is not prone to corrosion.

Although 3D printing has proven to save time and money, there are slight drawbacks for using this technology. For example, the USAF sets precedents for the use of 3D printing.

But, when these precedents are reached, it’s possible to order and install a printed part which may not be manufactured any longer.

Now that the print has been installed, it will be monitored by the USAF and checked when it returns to Hill AFB for maintenance. If there are no problems with this new part then it will be approved for installation on all other F-22 aircraft.

However, this won’t be the only 3D printed part used by the USAF either as they intend on building public-private partnerships to begin using many more 3D printed metal parts. In fact, there are five further metal additively manufactured parts planned for validation on the F-22. Watch this space.