Welcome to the first documented case where a 3D printed titanium piece has been installed into the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter by the US Air Force as a replacement piece. The Pentagon is hopeful that this is the beginning of some great feats since additive manufacturing would allow for the creation of stronger and newer parts for old aircraft in less time.
The piece that has been replaced is a small part. It is a bracket that is installed in the kick panel of the F-22 Raptor cockpit. The original parts are made from aluminum. However, they undergo replacement 80% of the time during the F-22 Raptor maintenance. As per Hill Air Force Base, the latest replacement part has been crafted from titanium powder. A laser-based powder bed fusion process was employed for the sake of building this part, layer by layer.
The titanium piece, unlike the aluminum counterpart, will not corrode. Thus once it has been installed, it will last the lifetime of the aircraft. The part will be kept tabs on over time and if it is proven that the installed part is durable; similar parts will be installed in all of the F-22 Raptors. The installation was carried out at the Odgen Air Logistics Complex at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. This is where all of the F-22 Raptors go for their depot-level maintenance. The part was ordered and installed b the 574th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.
As aircraft become older, their parts begin to wear out faster. This results in the aircraft spending more time undergoing maintenance than actually serving. For planes that are no longer being produced – F-22 Raptor production was ceased in 2012 – getting spare parts becomes much harder, and it might take months before the ordered parts arrive.
3D printing, however, enables the Air Force to quickly create the part that is needed, thus cutting down the maintenance time quite significantly. For instance, if this bracket installation is feasible; the future orders could be completed within three days!
A Lockheed Martin manager that was involved in the process, said, ‘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.’
Apart from this bracket, there are five other 3D parts for the F-22 Raptor that are waiting to go into production soon.