A Tornado plane has flown carrying a 3D-printed part, the first British Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter jet to do so.

The jet carried a 3D-printed metal camera bracket during a test flight, the defence contractor BAE Systems announced this week.

The contractor already uses 3D-printed equipment to help it maintain RAF aircraft on the ground. At RAF Marham airbase in Norfolk the firm uses 3D-printed plastic parts for a range of uses, including to provide protective covers for Tornado cockpit radios, support struts on the air intake door and protective guards for Power Take-off shafts.

BAE Systems claims that using 3D-printed parts will cut the cost of repairs, maintenance and service to the RAF by more than £1.2m over the next four years.

“You are suddenly not fixed in terms of where you have to manufacture these things. You can manufacture the products at whatever base you want, providing you can get a machine there, which means you can also start to support other platforms such as ships and aircraft carriers,” said Mike Murray, head of airframe integration at BAE Systems airfield in Warton in Lancashire, England.

“And if it’s feasible to get machines out on the front line, it also gives improved capability where we wouldn’t traditionally have any manufacturing support.”

The BAE Systems 3D printer can be seen in action here.

3D printers work by taking a 3D computer model and slicing it into layers. The 3D printer then builds the object layer by layer using one of a number of methods.

Most home and hobbyist printers print using Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), which basically builds a model out of molten plastic.

The quality of 3D models produced by FDM generally don’t match those built by some other more costly 3D printing technologies used by industry. One such technology is laser sintering.

Laser sintering uses a laser to fuse powder together into a model. Laser sintering is able to reproduce fine details and, compared to FDM, can build models out of a wider range of materials, such as ceramics, metals and glass.

3D printing has several advantages over traditional manufacturing techniques. Building a model doesn’t require spending thousands or more to set up machine tools and then thousands more when you want to change that model. It makes it financially viable to build one-off models on demand, and to tweak and customise 3D models in a way that would rapidly become hugely expensive using traditional manufacturing methods. Using a 3D printer also cuts down the supply chain: the network of factories, warehouses and shipping companies normally needed to get a product to an end user.

3D printing can also build objects using novel materials with complex shapes and structures that would be extremely difficult to reproduce using traditional methods. Waste can be reduced as the printer is generally using only the materials needed to build the object, rather than carving material out of a larger structure to create an object.

But in general 3D printers are also in general slower and more expensive than traditional manufacturing techniques used in mass production, and consumer grade 3D printers are only able to produce relatively simple plastic models.