When the Wright brothers flew their glider in 1903, perhaps even they couldn’t imagine that their fragile glider would evolve into supersonic fighter jets, tearing through the air, carrying missiles and weapons of all types.
Today, fighter jets have become common and form one of the most important components of aerial warfare.
The fifth generation jets, the latest today, are a marvel of science with capabilities of destruction and stealth far beyond their predecessors.
Perhaps, even these fifth generation jets will pale in comparison to the monsters of destruction that will come in the future decades and as 3D printing technology has started to be incorporated into manufacture of jets, the future looks more destructive than ever!
A Flight into the Future
It was a bright sunny day of December, 2013. At the British Aerospace Engineering (BAE) airfield at Warton, Lancashire, a Royal Air Force (RAF) tornado fighter jet was getting ready for take off. At first glance, there seemed to be nothing unusual. A jet was taking to the air like thousands had done before it. However, there was something special about this particular jet: It carried 3D printed parts. As it flew through the air, it became the first fighter jet to contain 3D printed components and as it landed, it had already made history. This flight didn’t just bring a new technology to the RAF; it ushered in a new era in the manufacture of fighter jets!
BAE Systems – Revolutionizing Aerospace
BAE Systems is a British multinational defense and aerospace company with headquarters in London. Formed in 1999 by the merging of British Aerospace (BAe) and Marconi Electronic Systems (MES), this company slowly rose in the ranks of defense contractors to become one of the largest Defense Contractors in the world.
Today, it is the largest supplier of weapons and aircrafts not only for the United Kingdom but also for United States, Australia and India. The company’s Typhoon fighter jet and Tornado Bomber are the front line fighter jets of the British Royal Air Force (RAF). It is also a major part of the Fifth Generation Fighter F-35 Lightning II Program, which is the largest defense contract in history (worth about 1 trillion pounds).
With the test flight at Warton in December 2013, BAE Systems also achieved the distinction of introducing 3D printing to fighter jets. It is quite appropriate that the largest and most innovative weapon manufacturer has chosen 3D printing as the future of the defense industry.
Introducing 3D Printing to Jet Manufacture
You’re probably asking yourself why 3D printing hasn’t been used for fighter jets before. Actually there are several obstacles in using this technology for the large scale production of fighter jets. The first obstacle of additive printing is that although it is perfect for small components and parts, it is inappropriate for the huge parts that make up jet planes.
For such parts, huge 3D printers are required which are very rare at the moment. Secondly, the question of durability is also often raised: Would 3D printed parts be durable enough to withstand the supersonic speeds that jet fighters normally fly at?
BAE Systems plans to overcome these obstacles by starting with small jet parts and then, moving on to larger parts. For instance, the fighter plane at Warton contained a 3D Printed Metal camera bracket and several plastic components like cockpit radio covers and support struts for air intake doors. Although a completely 3D printed fighter jet may be a thing of distant future, the use of these minor additive printed parts is the first, and perhaps the most significant, step towards making such a jet possible. A video of these 3D printed jet parts can be viewed on the BAE Systems YouTube Channel.
Advantages and Prospects of 3D Printed Parts in Jets
So, is there a good reason why the defense giant has chosen to bring additive printing to manufacture of jet parts? It turns out there is not just one but several advantages of additive printing in manufacture of jets:
The major advantage of using printed parts in jets is that they’re very cost effective. In contrast to the traditional jet parts, which cost thousands of pounds, some 3D printed parts may cost even less than a hundred pounds. In the Press Release on the Warton Test Flight, BAE systems wrote:
“With some of the parts costing less than £100 per piece to manufacture, 3D printing has already resulted in savings of more than £300,000 and will offer further potential cost savings of more than £1.2 million between now and 2017.”
These 1.2 million pounds can then be used for other purposes such as the design of new and better jets. Furthermore, as more and more jet parts are 3D printed in the future, the cost of building jets will drastically decrease and thus, even small countries and perhaps even terrorists, will be able to build formidable air forces.
Imagine what a waste it is, when a whole jet becomes useless in a battlefield because of a single dysfunctional part. The factories which manufacture these parts are usually located thousands of miles away, making replacement of such parts impossible.
However, with 3D printing, there’s no need for large factories; the only requirement for making new parts is an appropriate 3D printer! So, any dysfunctional part can be printed right away at the battlefield. Mike Murray, Head of Airframe Integration at Warton highlights this point in the following words:
“You are suddenly not fixed in terms of where you have to manufacture these things. You can manufacture the products at whatever base you want, providing you can get a machine there, which means you can also start to support other platforms such as ships and aircraft carriers. And if it’s feasible to get machines out on the front line, it also gives improved capability where we wouldn’t traditionally have any manufacturing support.”
Manufacture of Future Generations of Jets
In Our Review of 3D Printing in Aviation, we told you about the complex and novel aircraft components that will be manufactured through 3D printing in the future. For fighter jets too, additive printing brings the same possibilities.
With each successive generation of jets having more and more complex weapons and Electronic Circuits on board, it is only a matter of time before traditional manufacturing methods are obsolete.
Thus, additive printing will play a significant role in the manufacture of the Sixth and Seventh Generation Jet Fighters which will have futuristic technologies like morphing capabilities, electronic sensors and energy weapons.
A Safer Future?
In a world where war and destruction is common, should advancements in weapon technology be hailed as a victory for humanity? Will the future be safer with more powerful and destructive fighter jets or will wars become more common? Will cheaper 3D printed jets become available to Criminals and Terrorists and endanger innocent civilians? Regardless of these considerations, there is little doubt that 3D printing will revolutionize fighter jets for ever.
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