Aug. 15, 2014

On Jun 7th, Marine Capt. William Mahoney, an AV-8B Harrier pilot, successfully made a vertical landing of his aircraft after a gear malfunction. Shortly after takeoff on a routine flight from the USS Bataan, the airplane's nose gear failed to deploy. Relied on his training and the precision landing protocol Capt. Mahoney managed to land the jet over the deck. This incredible landing saved the Marines a hefty repair bill.

But what happened to the aircraft next? Officers at Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) located at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina announced on August 13th that technicians aboard the Bataan and artisans are using 3D printing to repair aircraft and quickly return them to the fleet.

Doug Greenwood, a FRCE aerospace engineer who, along with maintainers onboard the Bataan, dismantled the nose cone of the Harrier to determine the extent of damage.

"The hard landing damaged a portion of one of the structural frames in the nose cone," Greenwood said. Because only one portion of the aircraft's frame was damaged, the team decided to cut out the damaged section and replace it with a matching section cut from a spare frame at FRCE.

Patternmaker Caleb Guelich, left, and Engineer Justin Reynolds, both of Fleet Readiness Center East, inspect polymer form blocks made through Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). The form blocks, was made only in a matter of hours overnight on June 26 through mid-day June 27. Using conventional methods, creating these tools could have taken up to two to three weeks. (U.S. Navy photo by Dave Marriott/released)


"Sheet metal reinforcements, called 'doublers' would be needed to mate the donor section with the undamaged portion of the frame, which remained in the aircraft," Greenwood said. "The challenge for FRCE was to manufacture the reinforcement doublers and get them to the ship for the repair."

Sheet metal forming tools and flat patterns were designed on June 25 using the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) CAD model information. Within 48 hours of receipt of the OEM CAD model, tool design was complete and 3D printing of the forming tools began.

"The tools were built using a polycarbonate material chosen because it has a high compressive strength that can withstand high-pressure presses up to 4,000 pounds per square inch (psi)," Greenwood said.

One forming tool took five hours to build, while the second set took about 30 hours.

"Using traditional, nondigital tool design and building processes, manufacture of the doublers would likely have taken two to three weeks," Greenwood said. "Using the 3D digital data and AM, time and cost were reduced significantly."

In the last several years, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) has used 3D printing to create tools and other products. "Additive Manufacturing (AM) is a revolutionary technology," said Liz McMichael, NAVAIR's additive manufacturing integrated product team lead. "It has the potential to radically change how the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, our partners and allies develop, produce and support their platforms and systems."

Meanwhile the U.S. Navy is also exploring how 3D printing can be used as an at-sea manufacturing technology as a solution to its current logistical problems that arise from operating on the high seas. Earlier this year, the Navy installed a compact 3D printer on amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) to train its sailors on computer-aided design software and how to use the printer. In the future, if there is a part needed and it doesn't exist in the inventory, sailors could design and print the part on demand within hours or days, allowing for a more rapid response to the ship's needs. For U.S. Navy, adopting 3D printing could drastically increase the speed of execution, decrease costs and avoid shipping parts around the world.

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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