US Air Force looks to 3D printing to maintain its fleet

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US Air Force utilizing 3d printing for maintenance.

Last week, Wired published a story revealing the United States Air Force has an interest in 3D printing. The military branch is looking to additive manufacturing as a way to maintain its aging fleet. Moreover, the organization is planning a competition that will assess the production method’s viability within its broader supply chain.

Old Parts are Expensive

The Air Force has partially integrated 3D printing into its operations because replacing components on aging aircraft is incredibly difficult. Wired notes the organization gives its suppliers decades-old three-dimensional drawings for the specific parts it needs. But it rarely needs large quantities of individual items, meaning manufacturers have to create molds for orders of two or three units.

As a result, the Air Force has had to pay $10,000 to acquire new seat covers for its B-52s. Even then, the Defense Department had difficulty filling 10,000 unit orders for a host of different individual parts.

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In terms of economics and logistics, the organization can adequately source its fleet through traditional means. However, the Air Force has discovered it can optimize its supply chain via 3D printers. For the last few years, the military branch has utilized additive manufacturing to create thousands of antiquated plastic and metal components.

Now, the military wants to know if the production style can handle circuit boards, composites, and carbon fiber materials.

Dr. Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Acquisition, Technology, And Logistics, found that 3D printing is both convenient and economical. The official pointed out the organization can now replace $8,500 C-5 Supergalaxy latrine panels for $300. Consequently, Roper has sought to bring additive manufacturing further into the Air Force supply chain.

Air Force Advanced Manufacturing Olympics

To assess the viability of 3D printing as a broader Air Force’s sourcing solution, Roper organized an event called the Air Force Advanced Manufacturing Olympics. Set to take place on July 8 and 9 in Salt Lake City, the conference will test the mettle of various additive manufacturers, startups, university teams, and military contractors.

The Air Force will test the event participants via a series of manufacturing challenges. In “open box of parts floor exercise,” the organization will challenge teams to replicate specific components without access to its design specifications. The groups will be judged on their ability to produce parts that meet the military’s high standards.

Another Advanced Manufacturing Olympics challenge, “approval sprints,” will require teams to prove their 3D printed components are as good as the originals. Also, “supply chain marathon” forces the teams to determine if certain parts should be shipped or printed on-site. Wired said the outcome of that trial would give the Air Force data regarding the feasibility of frontline additive manufacturing.

Roper and the Air Force’s newly launched Rapid Sustainment Office will award the competition’s winners with prize money and access to government contracts.

This year, a variety of established corporations and startups have shown off the true potential of 3D printing. Indeed, this year has seen additive manufacturing in everything from medicine to hair regrowth to low-cost housing. With the financial backing of the U.S. military, the innovative production method will reach new heights in 2020.

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