The U.S. Air Force has revealed that it installed a titanium 3D printed component on an operational F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft this past December. The 3D printed part, a secondary bracket component, enabled Air Force technicians speed up the replacement of a damaged part on the aircraft.
Manufactured by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the F-22 Raptor is a single-seat, twin-engine, all-weather stealth tactical fighter aircraft utilized by the U.S. Air Force. The aircraft, which saw its first flight in 1997, went out of production in 2011 for various reasons, though operational units are still in use.
This situation has inevitably come with certain challenges, especially when it comes to repairing or replacing parts in the F-22. 3D printing, as it turns out, has provided a viable solution by offering on-demand production capabilities.
The 3D printed bracket was installed by the 574th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron onto an operational F-22 Raptor during depot maintenance at Hill Air Force Base. Robert Lewin, 574th AMXS director, commented: “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.”
3D printing enabled the team to print a replacement bracket on demand and as a one-off, saving substantial time and money. Importantly, being able to produce and install the part quickly also reduced the down time for the damaged aircraft. In fact, the part was ordered and delivered to the Air Force depot within just three days.
The bracket, printed from a corrosion-resistant titanium powder, replaced a bracket in the kick panel assembly of the aircraft’s cockpit which was made from a corrosion-prone aluminum. This particular F-22 part is reportedly replaced 80% of the time during maintenance.
“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,” explained Robert Blind, Lockheed Martin modifications manager. “We’re looking to go a little bit further as this part proves itself out.”
Since being installed, the 3D printed part has and will continue to be monitored and inspected by the maintenance team. If all goes well, the part will be validated and can be subsequently installed on all F-22 Raptor aircraft during maintenance.
Though the 3D printed titanium bracket is a secondary part, it is just the first of many metal 3D printed parts planned for U.S. Air Force aircraft. Looking at the F-22 specifically, there are reportedly at least five other metal AM parts planned for validation in the near future.
“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,” added Lewin.
The U.S. Air Force is not only exploring the use of metal 3D printed components for maintenance applications: in April 2018, it announced the adoption of 3D Systems’ Figure 4 DLP technology for replacement part production.