For the first time in history, the U.S. Air Force has 3D-printed a metal part for a jet engine. The part, a piece of the engine for the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber, will help to keep the plane in service until the late 2020s when new engines will be fitted.
The announcement is another tentative step by the Air Force into using additive manufacturing technology in order to add cheap, easily-manufactured parts to its building process.
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In response to the supply change for the part running out, U.S. Air Force engineers at Tinker Air Force Base printed an anti-icing gasket for the B-52s Pratt & Whitney TF33-P103 turbofan engine.
As Popular Mechanics points out, the TF33 is the original engine installed on the B-52H bombers when they were first produced in the early 1960s. Each plane is powered by eight of these engines.
As planes such as the B-52 get older, so does the complex supply chain that manufactures the parts needed for these high-maintenance beasts of the sky. As time passes it is inevitable that some of the parts manufacturers will end manufacture of specific parts or go out of business. That's where 3D-printing, also known as additive manufacturing, can lend a helping hand.
In order to build the new 3D-printed anti-ice gaskets for the TF-33s, the engineers took an OEM gasket and reverse-engineered it before printing new ones. As per The Oklahoman, the Air Force has printed 30 parts to date, but it will likely need a lot more, as its fleet of B-52s has a total of 608 engines.
It is important to note that this is only a temporary fix, as the Air Force plans to install completely new engines on the B-52 fleet later this decade. This, they say, will extend the fleet's life span by 90 years.