Aerospace is one of the industries set to benefit from the 3D printing revolution, with last year's test of 3D-printed rocket engine components by NASA being just one example of the shape of things to come. Now BAE Systems has revealed that 3D-printed functional components designed and produced by engineers at the Royal Air Force (RAF) Marham military airbase have flown for the first time in Tornado fighter jets taking off from BAE Systems' company airfield at Warton in Lancashire.

Although the specific components fitted to the aircraft weren't revealed, BAE Systems says its Combat Engineering team is developing ready-made 3D printed parts, including protective covers for cockpit radios, support struts on the air intake door and protective guards for power take-off shafts, which are intended to supply four squadrons of Tornado GR4 aircraft.

The move is expected to cut repair, maintenance and service costs to the RAF by more than £1.2 million (US$1.97 million) over the next four years. With some parts costing less than £100 (US$165) a piece to manufacture, BAE Systems says 3D printing technology has already provided savings of more than £300,000 (US$492,000).

“You are suddenly not fixed in terms of where you have to manufacture these things," says Mike Murray, Head of Airframe Integration at BAE Systems. "You can manufacture the products and whatever base you want, providing you can get a machine there, which means you can also start to support other platforms such as ships and aircraft carriers. And if it’s feasible to get machines out on the front line, it also gives improved capability where we wouldn’t traditionally have any manufacturing support.”

Source: BAE Systems