BAE Systems said that it has produced and certified a replacement part for the BAe 146 regional jet for the first time using additive manufacturing, or “3-D printing” technology. Now the company is exploring using 3-D printing to supply replacement parts for other commercial aircraft types.
BAE Systems Regional Aircraft looked for help from BAE’s military air and information business at Warton, UK, to produce a plastic window breather pipe that serves as a vent to stop cabin windows misting up. The plastic pipes were originally made by injection molding, but the tooling the supplier used was no longer available. Acquiring new tooling would have cost £14,000 ($23,255) and involved several months' lead time, the company said.
BAE’s military business is producing 3-D printed components for Tornado GR4 fighters operated by the UK Royal Air Force. The company recently flew the first such component—a metal camera bracket—on a Tornado operating from its Warton airfield. It is also designing and producing 3-D printed components at RAF Marham to support Tornado ground maintenance.
“Within two weeks, our Warton colleagues had produced examples of the [BAe 146] part and once we had used these to gain certification, they introduced us to a commercial 3-D printing supplier who was able to produce the required quantity for us,” said Philip Beard, BAE Systems Regional Aircraft structures support manager.
The 3-D printed parts cost 60 percent less than traditionally manufactured parts, Beard said. BAE had the supplier make 300 window breather pipes, which it stocked at the Regional Aircraft spares warehouse in Weybridge, southwest of London. The company is shipping the part to customers as they require for in-service aircraft.
Additive manufacturing creates three dimensional shapes from digital, computer-aided designs, using powdered raw material. The digital model is divided into horizontal cross-sections or slices. A laser or electron beam is used to trace a slice onto the powdered material, which melts and then cools to form a solid. The process is repeated slice by slice, with each cross-section bonding to the layer below.
Aerospace industry manufacturers see promise in the technology for producing aircraft and engine parts with complex geometries. Parts made by additive manufacturing tend to weigh less than conventional parts because they replace complex assemblies with single pieces, and they do not require the same amount of welding. The technology also generates less scrap material during the fabrication process, reducing waste.
In addition to BAE Systems, Boeing, EADS, GE Aviation and Rolls-Royce are among aerospace manufacturers advancing the technology. On January 22, RTI International Metals, a major supplier of titanium and specialty metals to the aerospace industry, announced that it acquired 3-D printing company Directed Manufacturing, of Austin, Texas, for $23 million. “We look forward to maximizing the commercial opportunities that the new capabilities of our latest acquisition will generate, particularly on the most advanced new commercial aircraft and engine platforms, as well as medical device applications,” said Dawne Hickton, RTI president and CEO.
According to BAE Regional, additive manufacturing provides a potential solution for aircraft parts that are prone to obsolescence, replacement parts made from tooling that is no longer available, quick turnarounds and small batch production. It is helping the regional aircraft division transition from providing engineering support of its in-service fleet to becoming an “integrated solutions provider” for other fleet operators. “Having achieved this first breakthrough on the BAe 146 window breather pipe, we are now looking at a range of other 3-D printing opportunities to provide replacement parts across several different commercial aircraft types,” Beard said.