British Fighter Flies with 3D Printed Parts

RAF TornadoThe United Kingdom’s Tornado became the first fighter jet to fly with 3D printed parts in December.

Done by BAE Systems, the Tornado was fitted with metal components constructed by a 3D printer. The plane then completed test flights at the end of December at BAE System’s airfield in Warton, Lancashire.

The 3D printer constructed a protective cover for the cockpit radio, a protective guard for the landing gear and support struts on the air intake door, according to BAE Systems.

3D printing has gained a lot of momentum, especially in the defense and aviation industries. Companies such as General Electric featured 3D printers at their booths at the Paris Air Show this past summer to display the relatively new technology.

Aviation companies see 3D printing as a tool to produce specialized aviation parts cheaper. Feeding a design into a 3D printer is often cheaper than traditional methods of manufacturing, GE officials said in Paris.

“You are suddenly not fixed in terms of where you have to manufacture these things. You can manufacture the products at whatever base you want, providing you can get a machine there, which means you can also start to support other platforms such as ships and aircraft carriers,” said Mike Murray, head of airframe integration at BAE Systems.

The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force has deployed 3D printers to the front lines of Afghanistan as part of their Expeditionary Labs that come with experience engineers who develop parts and gear for soldiers on site.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to He can be reached at
  • blight_

    I assume they meant laser-sintered?

  • Anymouse

    The Boeing company has been utilizing SLS (Selective Laser Sintering – an earlier form of additive manufacturing) for flight hardware in regular production since 2002, for both military and commercial programs…

  • can we apply to our own Air Force & Navy alone for parts to service planes.

  • oblatt2

    Next week defense tech will report on the wonder of the supermarket scanner.

    As others have pointed out its been used for a decade now and the Chinese are even further along using it extensively in their new fighters.

  • Big-B

    the stuff some do for a decade by now and the stuff that BAE does with the tornado: is it really comparable? (sorry to tired to read everything)

  • Musson

    “PC load letter! What the f@## does that mean?”

    I have a MIG on my ass and the printer keeps telling me PC load letter!

  • Mitch S.

    Read GE is going to be “printing” fuel nozzles for jet engines.

    This tech can be hugely beneficial for the AF and other aircraft operators.
    In an industry where a production of 2000 units is considered “huge” this type of manufacturing makes sense.
    Instead of scrounging boneyards or recreating expensive tooling to make parts for out of production aircraft, all that will be needed is the software program to run the machine (this also applies to CNC subtractive tech but additive tech opens many more possibilities).

  • CJHFl

    NASA used a 3D printer to construct a fuel valve for a new rocket engine, not only did the part work perfectly they claimed it reduced fabrication time from 1 yr to 4 months & saved 70% in cost. The F-35 includes 3D printed parts as well so I don’t see how they can call this British use a 1st.

    • Mitch S.

      They are claiming it’s :
      “the first fighter jet to fly with 3D printed parts”
      So the fuel valve doesn’t beat it (nor do GE’s nozzles, I don”t believe they have them in flying aircraft yet.
      What parts of the F35 are “printed”?
      (Maybe the RAF doesn’t consider the F35 to be a real “fighter jet”…)

  • Lance

    There can be a fully composite group thats self sufficient now. That’s cool.

  • chris stocken

    I think most aircraft manufactures have been using 3D printers for some time! the story here is they have developed /developing a 3D printer for front line use. Not the sort you would find in a factory.

    • CJHFl

      The US Army has a unit already deployed to Afghanistan: This is the Army’s first time sending a mobile 3-D printer to the front lines; other branches have used the technology for other support projects. The F-18 fighter jet, for example, has 90 parts that are 3-D printed and can be placed directly on the plane, according to Jim Williams, general manager of on-demand aerospace manufacturing for 3D Systems, which has supplied the government with 3-D technologies and applications.

  • Israel

    I wonder the variation of quality with regards to 3D printed parts. Only time will tell how this variation will be monitored.

    • Dfens

      In my experience it’s not so much the variation that’s a problem, but something related to the variation is the surface striations that occur at the interface between the layers that’s the really difficult thing to deal with. Well, that and the proper orientation of parts to ensure you don’t set up any floating islands as your parts are generated. I’ve had some real first run disasters due to orientation issues. The surface striations often result in parts that have to be either sanded before final use or at least one surface requires machining or drilling. Drilling is obviously the easiest, and if you were smart enough to locate the hole with a smaller, pre-formed pilot hole in your 3D model, then drilling is a snap.

  • Guest

    Not true. F-15 has been flying with these for 10 years now.

  • Bob

    3 parts entitles them to claim that the plane was constructed with 3D parts, seems a little misleading to me. Makes you think the whole plane was build with these parts.

    • I litrlaely jumped out of my chair and danced after reading this!

  • hibeam

    I’m printing my Army Air Corps flying badge right now.