A metallic 3D-printed part has been installed on an operational F-22 Raptor for the first time, which the Air Force hopes will lower costs and reduce maintenance time. The new titanium part for the cockpit, which was installed by the 574th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Hill Air Force Base in Utah on Wednesday, replaces conventional aluminum ones, the Air Force said in a news release. 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 Air Force noted 3D printing allows for replacement parts on short notice without minimum order quantities. The printed bracket, which won’t corrode, is made from a titanium powder. In the fusion process, a laser builds the part layer by layer. New brackets, which replace a corrosion-prone aluminum component in the kick panel assembly of the cockpit, can now be ordered and delivered to the depot in as soon as three days. After success in service and maintenance inspection, the part will be installed on all F-22 aircraft during maintenance.
At least five more metallic 3D printed parts are planned for validation on the F-22. In 2017, a U.S. Marine Corps infantry battalion in Camp Lejuene, N.C., became the first unit in the Corps to possess a 3D printer, using it to print various pieces of equipment. The U.S. Marine Corps also tested small 3D-printed drones developed by the Army Research Laboratory. Huntington Ingalls Industries also plans to install the first certified 3D-printed metal part on an aircraft carrier a prototype piping assembly on the USS Harry S. Truman this year.