Saab conducted a test flight on March 19 with its JAS 39D Gripen two-seat trials aircraft. The aircraft flew successfully with a 3D-printed component to test and demonstrate how this technology could be employed in the future to assist battlefield damage repair.
During the test flight the Gripen was fitted with a replacement hatch in the aft of the starboard wing/fuselage joint fairing. No 3D computer model of the part was available, so the hatch was removed from the aircraft and placed in a 3D scanner. The resultant model was then programmed into a 3D printer, which produced the part using the PA2200 polymer.
“Post-flight testing of the hatch showed that no structural changes had occurred,” reported Håkan Stake, Gripen C/D support contract manager and manager for the 3D printing development project. “The potential of this approach means that you no longer have to bring those parts on a deployment nor cannibalize other broken-down aircraft for their parts. This also reduces the operational time lost in repairs.”
Saab has fully embraced the potential benefits of additive manufacturing (AM), and in late 2017 co-founded the AMEXCI consortium to advance development in the AM arena. The successful flight test represents a significant step towards the use of in-the-field additive manufacturing to reduce the numbers of stocked spares required to support sustained deployed fighter operations, and also the time taken for repairs. The lead-time for producing one-off parts, or receiving them from central stocks, is greatly reduced, and the technology also permits the production of parts that may have become obsolete in out-of-production aircraft types. Moreover, AM technology permits complex shapes to be produced, in turn offering the potential to significantly reduce the number of individual structural parts.
“This test flight with a component with operational impact is an important first step as the aircraft and its parts have to meet the requirements of the airworthiness process,” said Ellen Molin, senior vice president and head of Saab’s Support and Services business area. “In terms of increasing operational availability in the field, additive manufacturing will be a game changer.”
Stake’s team is now embarking on further testing, including alternative materials that are flexible and can withstand the cold temperatures encountered at high altitude. Another area under study is the nature of the containers in which 3D printing equipment is transported during operational deployments. As well as testing, agreements are required on AM and material standards in order to satisfy airworthiness requirements.