Saab has successfully conducted the trial which marks the first time an exterior 3D-printed part has been flown on a Gripen, which is a lightweight, single-engine fighter jet -- rather than internal 3D-printed components. The purpose of the trial was to test how additive manufacturing could be used in battlefield damage repair.

The test flight took place in the skies above Saab’s facilities in Sweden, on March 19th of 2021. The fighter was fitted with a replacement hatch that had been 3D-printed using SLS 3D Printing, with a nylon polymer called PA2200. This 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.

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

They had great results, stating that “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 cannibalise 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,”

“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,”

While Saab’s recent flight test represents a significant step forward in its adoption of 3D printing, it has already deployed the technology to create multiple internal parts for its aircraft. For over five years now, the firm has worked closely with GKN Aerospace to certify flight-ready components, and develop PBF processes and materials that reduce cost and lead times during aerospace production.
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