First 3D-Printed Metal Part Flies on UK Military Jet

Ann R. Thryft

January 16, 2014

4 Min Read
First 3D-Printed Metal Part Flies on UK Military Jet

A 3D-printed metal aircraft end-production component has been successfully flown on a test flight conducted by BAE Systems for Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF). BAE Systems designed and printed the part, a camera bracket, and also developed the process that printed the part.

The metal camera bracket flew on a Tornado fighter jet late last month from the company's airfield in Warton, Lancashire. It's the first metal 3D-printed part that BAE Systems has qualified and fitted to an RAF fast jet aircraft, Mike Murray, head of airframe integration at Warton, told Design News, in an email. "We believe it is the first 3D-printed metal part to fly on a UK military jet," he told us. The company designs and builds combat and commercial aircraft, as well as combat vehicles, amphibious vessels, and electronics systems.


BAE Systems is no stranger to 3D printing. It's been using and developing stereolithography (SLA) internally for more than 15 years, for both rapid prototyping and development tooling. "The knowledge and experience gained in SLA is now being adapted to support the emerging additive manufacturing technologies with the aim of producing quicker and cheaper flying parts," Murray told us.

BAE's Military Air & Information business is developing the capability to engineer and manufacture polymer and metallic components, and has a number of machines located at a various sites around the UK. A range of metallic and non-metallic 3D-printed parts are being employed to support tooling and jig fixtures in the company's manufacturing areas and for on-base support.

BAE's first customer part, a plastic housing for some communication systems, was flown on the VC 10 tanker, says Murray. For the RAF Tornado aircraft, the company's engineers are designing and fabricating end-production working plastic components at another UK airbase, RAF Marham. These are protective covers for cockpit radios, support struts on the air intake door, and protective guards for power takeoff shafts. According to a press release, the use of 3D-printed parts has already saved more than GB pound 300,000 (US$491,722), and BAE estimates that the use of these ground support components will help save the RAF more than GB pound 1.2 million ($1.9 million) in repairs, maintenance, and service costs during the next four years.


The Tornado's metal camera bracket was 3D printed using selective laser melting (SLM) technology, according to Murray. You can watch a video of this process here. In this video Murray emphasizes the value of using 3D printing and additive manufacturing for making end-production parts. As he says in the video:

  • The parts are actually quite robust in the way that the manufacturing processes are used. Certainly, they're better than cast. We can get very good results. And they're moving towards the more traditional forged components, as well. It's intended that with these components, we would be able to replace what we would traditionally make from, say, a block of titanium or steel, with a grown component instead.

Murray also told us that BAE is assessing whether it's feasible to manufacture large titanium frames, and has been working closely with UK academia and industry to produce a number of 3D-printed structural components for an initial assessment. An article posted on the company's website in mid-December describes building a large spar section out of titanium using 3D printing in an effort that involved both BAE engineers and Cranfield University. The structure, which forms part of an aircraft wing, is 1.2 m (3.94 ft) long and was made using a Wire and Arc Additive Manufacture (WAAM) process in 37 hours.

Interestingly, Cranfield University is also involved in the European Space Agency's AMAZE program for developing 3D printing processes to print metals in space.

Rapid prototyping is being used on all BAE Systems' MAI platforms to replicate components, speeding the development of new designs and the fabrication of components for support applications, Murray told us. "There are opportunities to employ the non-metallic 3D printing process in a number of non-structural flying applications. These are currently being developed to support a number of our platforms and will be in production within the year."

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About the Author(s)

Ann R. Thryft

Ann R. Thryft has written about manufacturing- and electronics-related technologies for Design News, EE Times, Test & Measurement World, EDN, RTC Magazine, COTS Journal, Nikkei Electronics Asia, Computer Design, and Electronic Buyers' News (EBN). She's introduced readers to several emerging trends: industrial cybersecurity for operational technology, industrial-strength metals 3D printing, RFID, software-defined radio, early mobile phone architectures, open network server and switch/router architectures, and set-top box system design. At EBN Ann won two independently judged Editorial Excellence awards for Best Technology Feature. She holds a BA in Cultural Anthropology from Stanford University and a Certified Business Communicator certificate from the Business Marketing Association (formerly B/PAA).

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