Now that the U.K. has gotten its own electron beam powder bed fusion (E-PBF) system manufacturer, it was time that the Royal Air Force (RAF) get its hands on it. Wayland Additive’s Calibur3 metal 3D printer has been purchased by the No 71 Inspection and Repair (IR) Squadron, part of the A4 Force, and installed at the Hilda B. Hewlett Centre for Innovation at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire, U.K.
3D Printing with the RAF
The new facility features 3D printing and scanning equipment that will allow the IR group to 3D print aircraft spares on-demand. Other machines at the site include a Nikon HTX 540 CT scanner, Renishaw’s RenAM 500 metal printer, and a Stratasys Fortus 450 polymer printer. Altogether, the squadron aims to be able to replicate traditionally made components to use as spares, which will naturally have to undergo extensive testing before they can be implemented.
“One day the Royal Air Force will be able to manufacture structural aircraft components on main operating bases, or even in deployed locations,” said Squadron Leader Allen Auchterlonie, Officer Commanding No 71 (IR) Squadron. “We’ll be able to save money, but more importantly we won’t have to wait for spares to be delivered and we can get aircraft repaired far more quickly. The opening of this facility is a landmark in this exciting journey.”
Group Captain Nick Huntley commander of the A4 Force Elements says, “Additive manufacturing offers us enormous potential to repair and modify our aircraft quicker than ever before. Introducing any new capability into the RAF is a serious undertaking and the team at 71 Squadron have gone about this with professionalism and almost obsessive diligence. This is a genuine milestone; a real achievement and I am proud that this project has been led by the A4 Force.”
The Calibur3 Electron Beam Metal 3D Printer
The Calibur3 is about as leading edge as it gets, when it comes to E-PBF, as there are very few manufacturers in this space, aside from 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 accumulation, thus eliminating the need for expensive gases, and heat only the area that’s being 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 means of supporting local businesses, it is also a validation that the technology meets the standards of Britain’s military body.
“The RAF could one day use metal AM to design and produce its own aircraft spares on demand, which plays perfectly to the characteristics of our technology,” said Wayland Additive Will Richardson. “We offer the ability to process a wider palette of metal 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 — negating issues related to logistically challenging supply chains — at much lower cost, and without the need to stock an array of off-the-shelf spare parts.”
The RAF’s use of 3D printing does not seem to be as extensive, or at least as obvious, as other military bodies, in the U.K. and beyond. In the U.K.’s armed forces, the primary user of the technology appears to be the Royal Navy, while private entities like BAE Systems are utilizing AM significantly. More recently, however, the British government kicked off Project TAMPA, which should broaden the use of 3D printing across the Ministry of Defence. Additionally, TAMPA’s pursuit of 3D printing parts with NATO stock numbers means that the entire country’s military will be able to access the part catalog alongside other NATO allies.
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