BAE Brings 3-D Printing to Warplanes

FARNBOROUGH, England — While 3-D printed guns and homes are already here, 3-D printed drones and fighter jets are still far from reality.

But that hasn’t stopped British defense giant BAE Systems Plc and other aerospace firms in the U.S., Europe and Asia from experimenting with the technology, which has begun migrating from research applications in labs to actual parts flying on aircraft, company officials say.

The London-based contractor has used the process to build metallic brackets for cameras on its next-generation Taranis drone warplane and the aging Tornado fighter jet. The specially equipped fighter became the first such aircraft to fly with 3-D printed parts during a December test flight at the company’s airfield in Warton, Lancashire.

“We really wanted to show engineers that the art of the possible was there,” Mike Murray, head of airframe integration at BAE, said of the project this week at the Farnborough International Air Show, one of the biggest air shows in the world.

The company has also employed 3-D printing to make protective plastic covers for Tornado cockpit radios, support struts and guards for take-off shafts, which are typically damaged during routine maintenance.

Three-dimensional printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process by which components are made by printing successive layers or plastic or metal materials to form shapes. By contract, the traditional method of casting is subtractive and typically involves removing material.

The new printing technology is still decades away from reaching its full potential, but it’s already proving revolutionary by reducing the time and cost required to build products from computer templates. Using digital design and scanning techniques combined with 3-D printers, engineers can turn around projects in days rather than months.

“It’s a real game changer for us with time,” Murray said. “Eventually, these machines will be all over the place.”

BAE owns six 3-D printers and has also partnered with universities to use their hardware. The machines vary in shape in size, with some resembling over-sized coffee machines.

They’re made by such companies as EOS of Germany, Arcam of Sweden and 3D Systems of the U.S., and range in cost from around $35,000 for those using plastic materials to more $500,000 for those using metallic materials.

BAE doesn’t expect to begin manufacturing structural components on fighter aircraft for at least another few years, by late 2017 or early 2018, according to John Dunstan, head of the company’s agile product center.

The delay is due in part to limitations associated with the existing processes used on the current generation of 3-D printers. Building metallic parts requires lots of powder — which can’t always fit into the machine.

“For the metals, it’s more difficult and that comes from the amount of powder you would need to put in the bed in order to enable it to actually print the parts that you want,” Murray said. “So anything that’s of a large size would need a significant amount of powder. That’s heavy and that’s expensive.”

Still, the technology is expected to be increasingly used to create parts and components for not only warplanes, but ground vehicles, ships and aircraft carriers, even troop equipment.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • blight_……

    Edit: looks like tags 3-D printing, 3D printer and 3D printing are used to describe the concept.

    • Vaughn McCall

      Tornado fighter jet specially equipped fighter became the first such aircraft to fly with 3-D printed WOW GREAT, now who is certifying the part to be “flight certified / Qualifide”, every time I see this talk, It reminds me of the past when an out of production aircraft. and we needed a belcrank (just a good alloy) and the OEM said it was not flight qualified and this caused a u-know-what. No longer was this a user-contractor discussion, meet the Lawyers.
      And god forbid an incident occurs and during the investigation any finger points in the direction of “the part”.

  • Musson

    I guess they finally figured out how to charge $5000 for a plastic printed toilet seat.

  • stephen russell

    Lisc & apply to armor, naval, electronics, logistics alone.

  • Will

    The potential big advantage from 3-D printing is to manufacture some spare parts on base or on ship instead of waiting for them to work their way through the supply chain.

    • rtsy

      The real potential is in the civilian consumer market. No more buying common household items like spoons, bowls, tables, wrenches, shelves, etc.

  • Mitch S.

    First aircraft to fly with 3D printed parts?

    “Today, Boeing (BA) uses the process to make plastic air-conditioning ducts for its 787 Dreamliner jet”…

    • commenter

      It’s really not much of an announcement until a flight critical system/structure is made from 3D printed parts. Random brackets and non-critical items could be made from anything/anyway and not impact the aircraft in any meaningful way.

      • Stan…

      • Curt

        I guess engine fuel nozzles don’t count as critical structures? One should really read the links before posting, don’t you think?

  • Joshua Johnson

    I laugh at the fact they are laying claim to being the first company to fly such aircraft using 3D Printed Parts… my company CAD Drones, LLC was founded 6 months ago and has been doing this even before the launch of the company. Many others as well have accomplished that earlier

    • guest

      The claim is that this is the first warplane to fly with printed parts. If others have flown sooner, please correct the record.

      • guest

        China demonstrated new industrial steel, aluminium and titanium alloy 3d printer 6 months ago. Entire titanium alloy frames are printed. 3d printing is already widely used in Chinese military aircraft.

        BAE must mean an entirely 3d printed military aircraft.

        • iknow

          You don’t print glass, or electrical cabling, or tires…..

          BAE or DT is engaging in hyperbole. Take it with a million grains of salt.

  • anthony

    They’ll clone us before you know it and put us together,a duracel and here we are…

  • oblatt22

    The problem with 3D printing is that it is a disruptive technology and the contractors have absolutely no interest in adopting such cheaper technologies. Their whole business model is to drive up costs as far as possible not reduce them.

    So its no surprise that the Chinese are already well ahead on using it in aerospace.

    • Christopher Bloom

      Do you know of any sources describing the state of Additive manufacturing in China aviation industry?

    • William_C1

      They’re so far ahead they do their best to steal our technology and reverse engineer our engines.

      They’re still getting their better fighter engines from the Russians, they’d kill to be able to build something like the F119 themselves.

      • guest

        Your airframe firm just bragged they will soon have 3d printed parts in military aircraft. Dozen of Chinese military prototypes have already been flying with 3d printed frames and parts for 2 years. Who is stealing technology from someone who doesn’t have it yet?

        The engine argument is so old. Everyone knows it is only a matter of production costs and incompatibility with long superior Chinese engines China still imports replacement parts for their old wings from Russia, only waiting to replace the entire wing.

        • oblatt22

          While BAE is making plastic radio covers the Chinese are making titanium main spars.

          I used to be America was internationally competitive - but now there are too many losers like Bill, who are just looking for excuses to justify failure.

          • Guest

            You remind me of those guys in 1958-1960 insisting that there was a huge missile gap with the Soviets, and that they had some 500+ ICBMs already.

            (They actually had four, at the time. Not four hundred: four, including two prototypes.)

        • LPF

          Yeah sure thay have, care to name one of these prototypes?

  • Stan

    3d printing seems like the best thing short of the science fictional “universal assemblers”. SpaceX already uses the technique to make rocket engine parts. I wonder how far the automation of production may be taken? The potential products and implications are endless.