RAF Tornado fighter jet flies with 3D printed metal part

Tornado fighter jets in the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) are to use 3D printed parts for the first time.

One jet, fitted with a a 3D printed metal camera bracket, flew successfully from RAF Warton in Lancashire, in the North of England, recently.

In the meantime, BAE Systems engineers are designing and producing more functional 3D printed components for use in Tornado fighter jets at RAF Marham in Norfolk, in the East of England.

Many of the parts are relatively cheap to make, with some costing less than £100 ($165).

They include support struts on the air intake door, protective covers for cockpit radios, and protector guards for power take-off shafts.

3D printing makes solid objects from several materials without cutting or drilling

3D printing, also known as ‘additive manufacturing’ is a way of producing 3D solid objects with successive layers laid down in different shapes. It is distinct from traditional ‘subtractive manufacturing’ that achieves desired shapes by cutting or drilling away surplus material.

The process starts with a digital model of the object, which a computer program ‘slices’ into cross-sections, allowing each successive layer of liquid, powder, sheet material or paper to be laid down and either fused or joined together, to build the 3D object.

3D printing enthusiasts believe the technology will soon be the norm, overtaking laborious assembling of parts and components, by allowing complete functioning parts to be made at once, on demand.

RAF expect to make significant savings with 3D printing

The RAF say they have already saved over £300,000 ($494,100) by using 3D printing, and believe further use of the technology will save over £1.2m ($2m) between now and 2017.

Mike Murray, Head of Airframe Integration at BAE Systems, says:

“You can manufacture the products at whatever base you want, providing you can get a machine there.”

If it is possible to get the 3D printing machines on the front line, then it gives capability where there wouldn’t traditionally be any manufacturing support, he adds.

Meanwhile, researchers at Cornell University in the US have printed a working loudspeaker – the first ever 3D consumer electronic item – made of seamlessly integrated plastic, conductive and magnetic parts, and ready for use almost as soon as it comes out of the printer.

Video – 3D Printing