Testing new 3D print technology develops opportunities
When a fighter gets damaged in battle, the pilot must typically get the jet back to base for repair. But a new project at Saab is examining how 3D printing can be used to repair battle damaged fighters in the field.
This new technology is not only set to revolutionise spare parts production for the aviation industry, it also offers teams of Saab employees the opportunity to work creatively with innovation, and to develop their appetite for discovery.
Mathias Åhlin, product manager at busniss unit Gripen Support within Saab, and a number of his colleagues are experimenting with the possibility to 3D print spare parts for Gripen C/D. The idea to try and develop 3D spare parts for Gripen C/D initially came from one of Åhlin’s colleagues, Håkan Stake.
“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.
In the test a broken hinge and hatch for the Gripen C/D were printed in both metal, and plastic.
“It was very exciting to see how good the reverse engineering is. One of our big questions was ‘would the parts we 3D printed fit?’ They actually fit perfectly. This is the best part of innovation, the trial and error of making things,” he says.
The next step will be to see if a Gripen can fly with a 3D printed spare part.
Because the technology is so new, and because there are many possibilities for the use of 3D printing at Saab, a network was formed in 2017 that works across the organisation to include every business area. The network meets regularly and has representatives that advocate for the use of 3D printing (additive manufacturing) within the company.
“The networking and collaboration works very well and has helped a lot in our work, and the diversity of the applications to use this for is so wide that it means we have established contact with many different areas of Saab through this,” says Mathias Åhlin.
Saab has shown its support for the development of finding uses for additive manufacturing, with the management team providing special funding for additive manufacturing.
“I think that receiving this support from Saab has encouraged innovation,” he says.
Åhlin and the rest of the team believe that there is great future potential for the technology and that possibilities for additive manufacturing are endless. They are hopeful that the use of this cutting edge technology will revolutionise how Saab works with support, in the battlefield, and in other areas of the core business as well.
“Imagine if instead of having stock we just have printers? So instead of ordering stock, you can just print a part when you need something? Damage times could be limited, and you could keep flying while waiting for the spare parts,” he says.
Åhlin, a trained mathematician and software engineer, notes that working at Saab has opened more opportunities than he could have envisioned when he joined the company in 2000.
“I started out working as a software engineer with Gripen. Now I work with something entirely different that is being developed from a colleague’s idea,” he says.
“There is always a need for creative, and highly skilled people here at Saab. We have projects where we can put the right people to work straight away,” Åhlin adds.
"Printing spare parts is fantastic, and additive manufacturing feels like magic. You can print something and get the result, and you can hold it in your hand. It will take us a bit of time to get to where we want to go with this technology for the Gripen, but we are already on our way, and that´s quite fun".