OK, so they’re not printing out missiles at Raytheon in Tucson — at least not yet.

But researchers at Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems have demonstrated that they can make most of a missile using so-called 3-D printing, and the company is exploring the possibility of printing some parts in the future.

So far, Raytheon has demonstrated or is in the process of demonstrating that it can print up to 80 percent of a missile’s parts, including target-seeker components and a rocket motor, said Abel Ghanooni, program manager for the new Additive Manufacturing Center at Raytheon Missile Systems.

Like many high-tech manufacturers, Raytheon has for years been using 3-D printing to rapidly build prototype parts for product development, and for tooling to make parts. The company also has produced some parts that were qualified and used for testing its Excalibur precision-guided artillery shell, Ghanooni said.

Some aerospace companies are using 3-D metal printing to make tooling or parts, famously including the aviation division of General Electric, which is printing complex fuel nozzles for its latest jet engine.

Raytheon believes there’s a future for 3-D-printed missile production parts, which would have to meet stringent military qualification standards, Ghanooni said.

“The big barriers are, with these metal printers and the new materials being developed, there are issues around qualification,” said Ghanooni. “There aren’t standards out there right now you can go by to qualify something.”

Ghanooni said Raytheon is working with its customers to figure out how to qualify new 3-D printed parts for production.

“We have such stringent requirements. We have things that need to work the first time you shoot it — people’s lives are depending upon it,” he said.

A story Raytheon posted on its website about its 3-D printing work was widely repeated or excerpted across several tech websites, some with breathless headlines like “3-D printed missiles are now a reality” and “3-D printed missiles now a thing.”

NOT THERE YET

But Raytheon doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.

“We’re on this path,” Raytheon spokesman John Patterson said. “It makes sense for us to explore all this, but we just want to be careful that nobody comes away with the idea that we’re printing AMRAAMs (Advanced Medium-Range Air to Air Missiles) today — we’re not.”

Still, 3-D part production is emerging across the aerospace and defense industries. Consider:

  • GE Aviation is producing flyable 3-D parts, after winning Federal Aviation Administration certification of a 3-D-printed engine valve replacement part earlier this year. The company plans to spend upwards of $50 million on a plant to produce its new fuel nozzles, which fit on the new, fuel-saving LEAP engine it has developed in partnership with a French company. And GE is working with another partner to develop 3-D-printed turbine fan blades.
  • Lockheed Martin says it is using 3-D printers to manufacture tools used to build the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a next-generation fighter jet that will be flown by the U.S. military and allies.
  • Boeing and European rival Airbus are using 3-D-printed parts in some of their planes, helping them to shave off weight and improve fuel efficiency.
  • In June, Aerojet Rocketdyne said it had successfully tested an engine built entirely with 3-D-printing.

Despite the technical hurdles, the Defense Department is helping to push 3-D printing. In 2012, the Pentagon launched the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio. And the Navy has been testing the use of 3-D printers aboard ship, to allow sailors to print out repair parts while at sea.

Ghanooni noted that one division of Raytheon, its recently acquired Sensintel unmanned aircraft business, uses 3-D printing to make the plastic innards of one of its reconnaissance drones.

But making metal parts that can handle the heat and stress of combat use requires advanced materials and manufacturing methods, he said.

Though Raytheon’s new additive manufacturing center is in Tucson, the advanced metal printing takes place at Raytheon Precision Manufacturing in Dallas, Ghanooni said.

The company is currently working with so-called “powder bed fusion” 3-D printing technology, in which layers of powdered metal are built up on a bed and melted together with a laser or other energy source. After printing, the parts may be treated, machined or otherwise processed to meet the final specifications.

Industrial 3-D printers can be used to print in steel, titanium or other metals. Ghanooni said Raytheon has been mainly focused on one metal but declined to elaborate, citing competitive concerns.

FEWER, LIGHTER PARTS

One of the major advantages to 3-D printing parts, Ghanooni noted, is the ability to create complex shapes while avoiding the need for multiple-part assemblies, while saving crucial weight.

For example, GE says its 3-D-printed engine nozzle is 25 percent lighter and as much as five times more durable than its traditionally manufactured nozzle, which is made from 20 different parts.

“You can design it like a block of cheese where there are holes all over it — in certain areas where you need the strength you can double up and where you need no material you can actually have no material,” Ghanooni said. “Weight is a huge thing, because the less the parts weigh, the more fuel you can put into it and the farther it can go.”

Even with such attributes, it still has to make economic sense to 3-D-print a part rather than to make it through traditional methods like casting, forging or milling, Ghanooni said.

“One of the benefits of traditional manufacturing is you get economies of scale,” he said. “With 3-D printing, there are no economies of scale; price one is the same as price 100,000.”

That may change somewhat as faster printing technologies advance; for example, GE plans to ramp production of its 3-D-printed nozzles from 1,000 annually to more than 40,000 by 2020.

Another issue for Raytheon is training engineers to take full advantage of additive manufacturing.

“With additive manufacturing, you can design totally differently,” Ghanooni said. “It’s going to require a different mindset and we are looking at external avenues and internal avenues to train our engineers.”

That includes working with the University of Arizona, Raytheon Missile System’s biggest source of engineers.

UA LOOKS TO 3-D

The UA is using small 3-D printers across campus for research and instruction, and it’s looking to add additive manufacturing to its curriculum for engineering students, said Jeff Goldberg, dean of the UA College of Engineering.

“We do not yet have such a class, but I think that we will within the next couple of years,” Goldberg said in an email, noting that it could become part of the curricula at various departments, such as aerospace and mechanical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, or systems and industrial engineering.

For now, he said, 3-D printing technology is embedded in research and curricula in various schools; for example, advanced engineering students are studying the use of various materials and how to make 3-D printing faster and more energy-efficient.

Across campus, researchers in the UA College of Medicine Department of Surgery are using 3-D “bio-printers” to create human organs such as lungs and hearts.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at 573-4181 or dwichner@tucson.com On Twitter: @dwichner