FARNBOROUGH, England -- While 3-D printed guns and homes are already here, 3-D printed drones and fighter jets are still far from reality.
But that hasn't stopped British defense giant BAE Systems Plc and other aerospace firms in the U.S., Europe and Asia from experimenting with the technology, which has begun migrating from research applications in labs to actual parts flying on aircraft, company officials say.
The London-based contractor has used the process to build metallic brackets for cameras on its next-generation Taranis drone warplane and the aging Tornado fighter jet. The specially equipped fighter became the first such aircraft to fly with 3-D printed parts during a December test flight at the company's airfield in Warton, Lancashire.
"We really wanted to show engineers that the art of the possible was there," Mike Murray, head of airframe integration at BAE, said of the project this week at the Farnborough International Air Show, one of the biggest air shows in the world.
The company has also employed 3-D printing to make protective plastic covers for Tornado cockpit radios, support struts and guards for take-off shafts, which are typically damaged during routine maintenance.
Three-dimensional printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process by which components are made by printing successive layers or plastic or metal materials to form shapes. By contract, the traditional method of casting is subtractive and typically involves removing material.
The new printing technology is still decades away from reaching its full potential, but it's already proving revolutionary by reducing the time and cost required to build products from computer templates. Using digital design and scanning techniques combined with 3-D printers, engineers can turn around projects in days rather than months.
"It's a real game changer for us with time," Murray said. "Eventually, these machines will be all over the place."
BAE owns six 3-D printers and has also partnered with universities to use their hardware. The machines vary in shape in size, with some resembling over-sized coffee machines.
They're made by such companies as EOS of Germany, Arcam of Sweden and 3D Systems of the U.S., and range in cost from around $35,000 for those using plastic materials to more $500,000 for those using metallic materials.
BAE doesn't expect to begin manufacturing structural components on fighter aircraft for at least another few years, by late 2017 or early 2018, according to John Dunstan, head of the company's agile product center.
The delay is due in part to limitations associated with the existing processes used on the current generation of 3-D printers. Building metallic parts requires lots of powder -- which can't always fit into the machine.
"For the metals, it's more difficult and that comes from the amount of powder you would need to put in the bed in order to enable it to actually print the parts that you want," Murray said. "So anything that's of a large size would need a significant amount of powder. That's heavy and that's expensive."
Still, the technology is expected to be increasingly used to create parts and components for not only warplanes, but ground vehicles, ships and aircraft carriers, even troop equipment.