Although 3D printing is a relatively new technology within the military-industrial complex, it has impacted Israel’s aerospace developments in a great number of ways. Last year, the Israeli military had 3D printed their own drone components, and even started a consortium with the government to focus on 3D printing with titanium. Now, the Israeli Air Force’s Aerial Maintenance Unit (AMU) is utilizing 3D printing technology to help repair their aged and worn down fleet of F-15 fighter jets, which were acquired by the IAF in 1980, and have been used in various missions ever since.

f15iaf

Israeli Air Force airman works on an F-15

The F-15 aircraft has provided the Israeli military with decades of exceptional operation, and was even used recently during the military’s 2014 combat mission, Operation Protective Edge. But in order to keep these fighter planes functionally relevant, the AMU must focus on manufacturing replacement parts and upgrading their aircraft equipment with the help of their in-house 3D printers. Working out of the Tel Nof Air Base, which is located in central Israel, the AMU is seen as the home for damaged and outdated aircraft. Instead of disposing of these older planes and helicopters, and opting to spend millions on new aircraft and their components, the AMU repairs and enhances these older fleets for modern use.

“A new plane can cost tens of millions of dollars, and the delivery time can take years. We don’t have the money or the time to spend on such projects,” said one senior officer associated with the AMU. “Here in this unit we can turn an old plane into something that is quite capable of competing on the battlefield with new planes, and in fact we can ensure that these planes will remain competitive and mission-worthy for another decade.”

A 3D printed aircraft replacement part

A 3D printed aircraft replacement part

Before the AMU is able to upgrade the technology within these older aircraft, they must first replace these hard-to-find parts to ensure that they’re structurally and operationally sound. In order to make replacement parts for their 30-year-old F-15s, the AMU uses a 3D camera to produce a 3D model of the specified part, and in a matter of hours, the team can have that exact component 3D printed. Before the AMU had access to this 3D printing technology, producing replacement parts for older aircraft was a lengthy and trying process. The unit had to rely on engineers to specify each replacement part, which then went through the hands of their designers and manufacturers, which generally took months and exhausted all of the factory resources.

Although metal 3D printing is widely used across the aerospace industry, the AMU has actually been printing their replacement parts with plastic polymer materials, which not only show material strength equal to aluminum, but also perform adequately while operating in midair. Still, the IAF is currently working with the Ben-Gurion University and the Office of the Chief Scientist to develop their own metal printers, particularly for use with titanium.

A closer look at the F-15

A closer look at the inside of the F-15

It’s not just replacement parts that keep these aircraft relevant, but also the implementation advanced equipment and improved systems, which includes enhanced engines, communication devices, radar systems, and more. According to the senior officer, the F-15 has been able to remain in the IAF fleet due to two of these upgrades. Although, for the IAF, developing a new fighter plane seems to be out of the question at this point in time, 3D printing technology has enabled them to recreate their older aircraft, making them not just as good as new, but oftentimes better than ever before. Discuss this method for maintaining aircraft in the 3D Printing Parts for Older Israeli Military Planes forum over at 3DPB.com.

[Source/Images: IAF, via The Times of Israel]
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