Now that the UK has gotten its own Electron Beam Powder Bed Fusion (E-PBF) system manufacturer, it was time for the Royal Air Force (RAF) to get their hands on it. Wayland Additive’s Calibur3 metal 3D printer was purchased by No. 71 Inspection and Repair (IR) Squadron, part of Force A4, and installed at the Hilda B. Hewlett Center for Innovation at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom.
3D printing with the RAF
The new facility includes 3D printing and scanning equipment that will allow the IR Group to 3D print aircraft spare parts on demand. Other machines at the site include a Nikon HTX 540 CT scanner, a RenAM 500 metal printer from Renishaw and a Stratasys Fortus 450 polymer printer. Overall, the squadron aims to be able to reproduce traditionally manufactured components for use as spare parts, which will naturally have to undergo extensive testing before they can be implemented.
“One day the Royal Air Force will be able to manufacture aircraft structural components at main operating bases, or even at deployed sites,” said Squadron Leader Allen Auchterlonie, Officer Commanding 71 Squadron. (IR). We will be able to save money, but more importantly, we won’t have to wait for spare parts to be delivered and we will be able to get planes fixed much faster. The opening of this facility is a milestone in this exciting journey.
Group Captain Nick Huntley, Commanding Officer of A4 Force Elements, says, “Additive manufacturing gives us enormous potential to repair and modify our aircraft faster than ever before. Introducing any new capability into the RAF is a serious undertaking and the team at No 71 Squadron approached it with professionalism and almost obsessive diligence. This is a real milestone; a real feat and I am proud that this project was led by Force A4.
The Calibur3 metallic electron beam 3D printer
The Calibur3 is state of the art when it comes to E-PBF, as there are very few manufacturers in this space other than GE, JEOL, Xi’an Sailong Metals and FreeMelt – and only JEOL and Wayland promise to overcome the drawbacks of GE’s Arcam machines. In the case of the Calibur3, Wayland’s NeuBeam process is able to neutralize charge buildup, eliminating the need for expensive gases, and heating only the area that is sintered, opening up the size and range of materials that can be printed. While the RAF’s purchase of the system may be, in part, a way to support local businesses, it is also a validation that the technology meets the standards of the British military body.
“The RAF could one day use metal AM to design and produce its own on-demand aircraft spares, which is a perfect fit with the characteristics of our technology,” said Wayland Additive Will Richardson. “We offer the ability to process a wider range of metallic materials allowing the production of lighter and stronger parts often used in aerospace applications as well as highly wear resistant parts. For the RAF, spare parts can be produced using the Calibur3 system in days, not months – eliminating the hassle of logistically difficult supply chains – at a much lower cost and without whether it is necessary to stock a range of ready-to-use spare parts.
The RAF’s use of 3D printing doesn’t seem as extensive, or at least as obvious, as other military bodies, in the UK and beyond. In the UK Armed Forces, the primary user of the technology appears to be the Royal Navy, while private entities such as BAE Systems use AM significantly. More recently, however, the UK government launched the TAMPA project, which is expected to expand the use of 3D printing within the Ministry of Defence. Additionally, TAMPA’s pursuit of 3D printed parts with NATO stock numbers means that the entire nation’s military will be able to access the parts catalog alongside other NATO allies.
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