UK-based BAE Systems is a leading defense, security, and aerospace manufacturer, serving customers in over 40 countries. Among the company’s business groups, BAE Systems Air supports the entire life cycle of the air sector – from design, development and production, to provision of aircraft, training, support and maintenance.
But staying a leader means BAE Systems must relentlessly look for new opportunities to drive efficiencies into aircraft development programs. To that end, the company developed its “Factory of the Future” initiative. The program employs state-of-the-art manufacturing processes using Industry 4.0 techniques to produce the next generation of combat aircraft.
“Technology is advancing at a blistering pace and we must be smart and agile in the way we do things so we can adopt the latest technologies,” says Professor Andy Schofield, Manufacturing and Materials Technology Director. Among these technologies is 3D printing, a key component of the Factory of the Future. “3D printing opens up many more opportunities, not just in terms of significantly reducing cost and time, but also to encourage out-of-the-box thinking in the way we make things,” he says.
BAE Systems is serious about this. In fact, the company is looking to build the new Tempest next generation fighter aircraft with 30% 3D printed parts. This is consistent with the U.K. government’s Combat Air Strategy aimed at driving affordability into these programs. 3D printing helps BAE Systems meet that government goal by significantly reducing manufacturing costs compared to traditional methods.
The Factory of the Future is today.
Despite its name, BAE’s Factory of the Future isn’t something that’s yet to come – it’s here today. For example, the Company installed four large-scale industrial-grade FDM 3D printers at its Samlesbury, U.K., site to help transform manufacturing operations. These printers run around the clock and are used across aircraft ground equipment operations for a wide range of applications including design verification prototypes, manufacturing tools and final production parts.
“In the aerospace and defense industry, progress never sleeps and competition is fierce,” says Greg Flanagan, additive manufacturing operations lead at BAE Systems Air. “Our Factory of the Future program is all about driving the future of combat aircraft production with disruptive technologies. Additive manufacturing plays an important role in this initiative, as it helps us meet our overall company objectives to reduce costs and bring new products to market faster.”
Bringing speed and ROI to manufacturing through 3D-printed tooling.
One key challenge for BAE Systems is the high non-recurring cost of aircraft tooling. Fortunately, 3D-printed tools can be produced in a fraction of the time and cost required of traditional manufacturing. This is especially true with items such as drill guides, repair tools and other manufacturing aids that are often needed in small numbers. The range of high-performance thermoplastics available on these printers allows the company to replace traditionally manufactured – typically metal – tools with 3D printed alternatives that are strong, light-weight, and quick to produce.
“Our 3D printers are working even when we’re asleep, so we’re witnessing some significant benefits,” Flanagan says. “When using these machines across our operations, we’re enjoying significantly reduced costs and lead times compared to those of traditional manufacturing methods.”
3D printing aircraft ground equipment parts.
Besides tooling, BAE Systems also uses 3D printing for final part production, such as customized aircraft ground equipment. Using robust thermoplastics, the team can replace traditionally manufactured equipment with lightweight 3D printed alternatives. One example is the cockpit floor covers for the Typhoon fighter aircraft. 3D printed covers can be produced faster and are lighter than their metal counterparts. This makes for easier handling by the ground crew and improves efficiencies within the overall MRO process.
BAE Systems also prints protective collars that cover and shield sharp probes and other exposed areas of an aircraft when on the ground. This is essential to avoid damage and protect ground crew. The durable polymer material provides the strength needed for the protective covers, but also delivers another important benefit: color. The industry standard color for these covers is red, so it’s an added benefit that they can be printed in that color, avoiding the need for painting.
Speeding into the future.
For BAE Systems, 3D printing has outgrown its role as mainly a rapid prototyping tool, proving to be a critical solution to a more adaptable supply chain. For example, when there are delays due to part shortages, the team simply 3D prints “space” models that serve as a temporary representation of the real part. This short-term measure helps maintain production by avoiding work stoppages.
The 3D printers installed in the Samlesbury facility are paving the way for more integrated uses of additive manufacturing technology in the future. Says Flanagan, “We’re constantly exploring how we can adapt our processes to leverage this leap in technology. By proving additive manufacturing on existing platforms, we can provide the confidence within the organization that additive manufacturing should remain an increasingly fundamental part of our Factory of the Future concept.”