• Chengdu J-20 heavy stealth fighter takes to the air.

Chengdu J-20 heavy stealth fighter takes to the air. (Photo : CAC)

A revolutionary Chinese device that combines metal 3D printing, casting and forging is being used to make critical parts for China's fifth generation fighters such as the Chengdu J-20 and the Shenyang J-31.

The first-of-its-kind device, the Micro Forging & Casting Sync Composite Device, uses a technology perfected in China called "smart micro casting and forging."

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The technology combines metal casting and forging technology to significantly improve the strength and ductility of metal molds, thereby expanding their service lives and reliability. Combining 3D printing, casting and forging also contributes to stronger parts and added toughness; improved product lifecycles and better reliability, according to the inventors.

The team said its smart micro casting and forging is an innovation will be useful in the aerospace, manufacturing and automotive industries, among others. The technology can also be used to create thin-walled metal components that can be used in jet aircraft.

The team said its casting and forging process is being used to create titanium 3D printed joints for a new Chinese fighter -- likely the J-20 -- which has entered limited production. These joints would have been impossible to create as a single piece using any subtractive manufacturing technique.

Production of these titanium 3D printed joints in the past would have meant reducing the design standards and splitting the joint into multiple parts. The part would then be assembled but the resulting joints would have negatively affected the performance of the fighter and shortened its life cycle.

The team used its new technology to 3D print TC4 titanium alloy parts for stealth jets whose tensile strength, yield strength, ductility and toughness are superior to traditional forging parts.

Experts have verified that parts made using the team's 3D printing, casting and forging all-in-one technology are more stable compared to those made by traditional casting.

China recently produced its fourth J-20 heavy stealth fighter and expects the first squadron of 12 jets to become operational by 2018.

The Chengdu Aircraft Corporation is expected to manufacture 12 J-20s for the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) by 2017. These fighters will then be shaken down and will become operational by 2018.