Mark Potter, a member of the ALM team at BAE Systems with long titanium spar section

One of the largest 3D printed metal parts to be produced in the UK has been made, demonstrating how this cutting edge manufacturing technique could revolutionise the way aircraft are produced in the future.

Rapid manufacture

The part, measuring 1.2m in length was produced in just 37 hours from digital model to a complete 3 dimensional part.  The part is the result of a research project led by Cranfield University to develop processes for the manufacture of large structural parts using the 3D printing process, otherwise known as Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM).   

Leading the way

Stewart Williams leads the Cranfield team behind the initiative and said “It’s crucial that we work together on projects like this to bring together the best knowledge and skills across academia and industry.  It’s that collective power that ensures that we, in the UK stay at the cutting edge of this exciting new technique for manufacturing.”

Made in Britain

The large titanium component, known in the industry as a spar section was designed by our engineers in Lancashire.  It sits longitudinally to form part of an aircraft wing structure.  The design was a generic one, having features representative of a typical spar section on a military aircraft.   Manufacture of the part took place at Cranfield University using a specific kind of 3D printing known as the Wire and Arc Additive Manufacture (WAAM) process.

Matt Stevens was one of our engineering leads on the project and said “What we’ve been able to demonstrate from this project is that we have the ability to manufacture titanium parts on this scale.  The next stage is to continue working together to produce more parts and to develop a robust set of processes so that we can take this technology and apply it safely and seamlessly into the aerospace industry.”

Saving cost and time

There are several benefits to producing parts this way, cutting costs and saving time being two of the key ones.  To date we have already flown a number of flight cleared 3D printed non-metallic parts made out of materials such as ULTEM and Polyamide12.  At RAF Marham, where the Tornado squadron is based, we have helped to install the capability to produce protective covers for Tornado cockpit radios, support struts for working on air intake doors and protective guards for PTL shafts.  The protective covers are made through 3D printing in a day for less than £100 each, meaning savings to date of £300,000 with a projected four-year reduction in manufacturing costs of £1.2million.  And given that a replica repair plate, guaranteed in its accuracy, can be turned round in a day, as opposed to nearer a month, the benefits of the technology are apparent.

Cutting edge technology

With one of the largest UK manufactured metal aircraft parts now produced successfully, the Cranfield led project team will continue to invest in this cutting edge technology, developing more parts and undertaking detailed analyses of the parts produced.