The Future of Battlefield Damage Repair
Saab recently conducted a Gripen test flight with a 3d printed spare part at its facilities in Linköping. Gripen flew with a replacement hatch which was 3d printed using additive manufacturing, with a nylon polymer called PA2200. The 3d model of the original hatch was not available, so it was removed from the aircraft and scanned.
When a fighter aircraft gets damaged during a mission or a battle, the solution is usually to take it back to the base for repair. But with additive manufacturing, most commonly known as 3D printing, the crew members can produce spare parts on the spot allowing the fighter to get back on track as quickly as possible.
Lisa Åbom, Chief Technology Officer of Saab Aeronautics, said that several articles have been produced using 3D printing in the Gripen E. “What is really cool about 3D printing is that you can find ways to optimize the design to take away some weight from certain structure parts. And it gets even more exciting when you can add functionalities to the structures and materials. That is when we can really start to use the technology in the future,” she said.
Mathias Åhlin, a product manager at Saab for Gripen Support, has been working with his colleagues on the prospects and potentiality of 3D printing for Gripen C/D. It was one of Åhlin’s colleagues, Håkan Stake who actually came up with the idea to develop 3D spare parts for Gripen C/D initially.
“Håkan and I are working quite closely on this project, using battle damage repair in a war scenario as a test case. We have the luxury of working in an organisation that gives us the time to develop an innovation. It’s really quite unique,” Åhlin explains.
About Gripen’s test flight with the 3d printed hatch, Hakan says, “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.”
Åhlin and his team believe there is great future potential for the technology and that the possibilities for 3D printing are endless. Saab has always taken inspiration from different areas of technology of the present and future. Exploring a revolutionary technology like 3D printing can revolutionize our work in the battlefield.
The whole concept of 3d printing where you can print spare parts in material like plastic and metal does sound futuristic to many. Printing more than Gripen spare parts will definitely take some time to move beyond evaluation stage, but the process has begun.
“It is quite possible that we may start using 3D printed materials as an integral part of the Gripen instead of just using it as spare parts for a short duration,” says Ellen Molin.