Saab flight tests 3D-printed repairs on Gripen fighter jet

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Swedish aerospace and defense company Saab has successfully conducted a flight test that has shown how additive manufacturing can be used to repair battlefield damage on its Gripen fighters.

The test flight, which took place at Saab’s facilities in Linköping, Sweden on March 19 marks the first time an exterior 3D-printed part has been flown on a Gripen, rather than internal 3D-printed components.

The  Gripen was fitted with a replacement hatch that had been 3D-printed using additive manufacturing, using a nylon polymer called PA2200.

The project is a step towards 3D-printed spares being used for rapid repairs to fighter aircraft that have sustained damage while deployed on remote operations, thereby gaining a vital time-saving advantage, said Saab.

Since there was no 3D computer model of the original hatch, it was removed from the aircraft and put in a scanner. This process in turn enabled 3D printing of an exact copy, tailor-made to this individual aircraft.

Håkan Stake, contract manager for support to Gripen C/D, and manager of the development project said, “Post-flight initial inspection of the hatch was very positive and showed no visual structural changes had occurred from the flight.

“The potential of this approach means that maintenance personnel in the field can get access to individually fitted spare parts and you no longer have to resort to emergency fixes nor cannibalize other broken-down aircraft for their parts, while also further reducing the small number of parts brought on a deployment. This also reduces the operational time lost in repairs.”

To achieve the goal of deploying this capability, further testing is required along with agreements on material standards.

This milestone is the latest step in Saab’s embrace of additive manufacturing. In 2017 Saab co-founded the AMEXCI consortium for the specific purpose of furthering the technology, and Saab has been working with AMEXCI’s experts ever since to find new applications and ways to produce parts and equipment using additive manufacturing.

Ellen Molin, senior vice president and head of Saab’s business area Support and Services said, “This test flight of a component with operational impact is an important step as an aircraft, including all its parts, always has to meet the tough requirements of an airworthiness process. In terms of increasing operational availability in the field, additive manufacturing will be a game changer.”

The Saab team are now looking at alternative materials to PA2200, that are also flexible and can withstand the cold at high altitudes. They will also progress a container solution so that printing equipment can be taken on deployments.

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Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before eventually becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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