For the first time, the US Air Force has 3-D printed and installed a replacement titanium part on a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor as part of a greater effort to shrink repair costs and time.
The USAF has only 186 operational F-22s and has struggled to deploy and maintain the aircraft effectively. Managing the small fleet is especially difficult because the stealth fighters are notoriously expensive to maintain or fix after damage.
The metallic bracket was installed in December by the 574th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Hill Air Force Base. The service hopes that the use of 3-D printing will give maintenance personnel the ability to acquire replacement parts on short notice without minimum order quantities.
“One of the most difficult things to overcome in the F-22 community, because of the small fleet size, is the availability of additional parts to support the aircraft,” says Robert Lewin, director of the 574th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.
The bracket was made with a powder bed fusion process that uses a laser to build the part layer by layer from a titanium powder, says the USAF. Using 3-D printing a new bracket can be ordered and delivered to the depot for installation in as quickly as three days. The printed part replaced a corrosion-prone aluminum component in the kick panel assembly of the cockpit that is replaced 80% of the time during maintenance, says the service.
The part will be monitored while in service and inspected when the aircraft returns to Hill AFB for maintenance. If validated, the part will be installed on all F-22 aircraft during maintenance. There are at least five more metallic 3-D printed parts planned for validation on the F-22, the USAF says.
“Once we get to the more complicated parts, the result could be a 60 to 70 day reduction in flow time for aircraft to be here for maintenance,” says Lewin.