The Air Force has used 3D printing technology to procure parts for legacy aircraft that have gone out of production before, but never has the technology been used to repair America’s most advanced air superiority fighter in history, the F-22 Raptor. That is, until recently.

The F-22 Raptor was America’s first fifth-generation platform, purpose built by Lockheed Martin to serve as a stealthy air interceptor that could engage the best fighters on the planet. However, the program was cut short with only a few more than 180 air frames produced, less than half of Lockheed Martin’s initial order. The prevailing wisdom at the time suggested that the days of competition between great military powers was over, and the United States would never again need to field a fighter capable of engaging advanced enemy aircraft. Of course, it didn’t take long for that “wisdom’ to prove inaccurate — but by then, the vast majority of the F-22’s production line has been cannibalized to support expanding orders for the America’s next fifth-gen fighter, the F-35.

The F-22, of course, isn’t without its faults. It’s an exceptionally expensive aircraft to maintain, especially because spare parts can be much more difficult to come by than they would be for an aircraft that was still in production.

“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,” said Robert Lewin, 574th AMXS director. As a result, the stealthy fighter is a perfect application for metallic 3D printing technology — which allows the Air Force to literally print titanium components for the aircraft.

While the first 3D printed F-22 part is nothing more than a bracket and will still need to undergo stress testing, it’s a significant step toward streamlining the 3D printing process for integral aircraft like the Raptor. That could mean a dramatic reduction in how long it takes to get damaged or worn out parts replaced, and a faster turnaround for F-22 maintenance.

“Once we get to the more complicated parts, the result could be a 60-70 day reduction in flow time for aircraft to be here for maintenance,” said Robert Lewin, 574th AMXS director.


Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force

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