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Fighter jet with 3-D-printed parts flies for first time

Tornado fighter jets containing 3-D-printed parts have flown for the first time, defense giant BAE Systems said.

Components including protective covers for cockpit radios and guards for power take-off shafts, were manufactured by the company using a 3-D printer at the Royal Air Force base in Marham, U.K.

The successful test flight could pave the way for use of the technology for other pieces of military kit.

BAE Systems Tornado jet

"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," Mike Murray, head of airframe integration at BAE Systems, said in a press release.

"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."

3-D printing has taken off over the past year to create a host of products, from guns to jet engine parts.

BAE said it had already made cost savings of more than £300,000 ($491,364) since adopting the technology and expects to save the RAF more than £1.2 million between now and 2017.

Analysts said the use of 3-D printing will continue to expand, but the extent to which it could be used is unknown.

3D printing: Bull vs. bear
3D printing: Bull vs. bear

"We are only at the beginning of a revolution in distributed manufacturing whose economic impacts are hard to predict," Paul Schulte, senior visiting fellow at Kings College London, told CNBC in a phone interview.

"The technical and economic consideration in using 3-D printing is cost and speed. If you are doing a large scale production you probably won't use 3-D printing and there will be some cut off point at where it is more economically viable and quicker to use conventional techniques."

In November, Rolls-Royce announced it would use 3-D printing to make parts for its jet engines, and NASA said in September it was gearing up to launch a 3-D printer to the International Space Station after successfully testing the technology.

—By CNBC's Arjun Kharpal. Follow him on Twitter @ArjunKharpal.

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