Oct 21, 2015 | By Kira

The Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, located in the Tinker Air Force Base, is a major US Air Force Base and worldwide manager for a range of aircraft engines, missiles, software and avionics. Their responsibilities include designing, creating, and maintaining some of the most advanced military planes and missiles in use. In order to keep up with growing technological demands, the OC-ALC is finalizing a strategic plan to integrate 3D printing technology in nearly every aspect of its airpower sustainment mission. They have announced that they expect 3D printing to play an increasingly important role in everything from manufacturing aircraft engine parts to printing electronic components designed by the 76th Software Maintenance Group.

The plan stems from the additive manufacturing goals in the Air Force’s ‘Complex of the Future’ strategic forecast, which foresees increased integration of additive manufacturing technology in the US Air Force over the next several decades. OC-ALC is not alone in this venture: several other Air Force complexes, including the Robins Air Force Base in Georgia and Hill AFB in Utah, are also developing their own complex-specific plans to integrate 3D printing technology in their aircraft development and maintenance. “We’ve realized that additive manufacturing is a technology that is mature enough, that is being adopted very strongly in industry right now, and that we as a depot need to build this capability,” said Dr. Kristian Olivero, the complex’s top scientist and engineer. “This is a step-change technology that will really change in some ays how we can do depot maintenance.”

Martin Williams, the 76th Commodities Maintenance Group engineering branch chief, shows parts made using 3-D printing technology in the reverse engineering and critical tooling cell to Dr. Charles Bunting, associate dean of Research and Sponsored Programs at Oklahoma State University, and Dr. Burns Hargis, OSU president, during a tour of OC-ALC engineering and software facilities Oct. 7, 2015. (Air Force photo/Kelly White)

The Air Force’s optimism towards 3D printing is based on several key advantages, including the ability to quickly manufacture engine replacement parts on the spot, without having to wait months for them to be accurately designed, manufactured, and shipped. Because 3D printed parts are created on-demand, the technology also eliminates the need for large inventory storage spaces and reduces material waste. "With additive manufacturing, that part may take a couple of hours to print and you can actually go through five or six iterations in days," said Olvero. "Even if your final part is going to be machined, you can print it in plastic five times to make sure it's got the correct geometries, the right tolerances, the correct interfaces, and then machine the final one."

3D printing technology can also breathe new life into some of the Air Force’s oldest planes. The venerable B-53 Stratofortress, for example, has parts that haven’t been manufactured for decades. Rather than let it rust away, engineers that use 3D laser mapping and other techniques to reverse engineer existing parts, and even 3D print improved replacement versions. (Taiwan's first metal 3D printer is expected to play a similar role.)

The B-53 Stratofortress

“The speed of it and the flexibility of it will very much improve our industrial base, where we’re repairing aircraft that are getting older and older,” said Olivero. “We have more and more instances of parts that we can’t get. All of this will help us be a better logistics centre.” While he did admit some flaws to using additive manufacturing, such as the fact that some jet engine components must withstand extremely high temperatures not possible with 3D printed parts, the technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that this may not be an issue in the coming decades.

The strategic plan is expected to be completed in the next few months and will cover a broad range of issues, such as how to build engineers’ expertise with 3D printing, and how to manage the ever-increasing range of 3D printers available on the market.

The biggest challenge, however, might not be with the technology itself, but with the human engineers who have yet to adapt, with even recent college graduates still inexperienced with 3D modeling and manufacturing: “The biggest challenge is going to be changing the mentality of our engineering and technician workforce because right now most people in the complex aren’t used to additive manufacturing,” said Jamie Gilbert, OC-ALC industrial process authority. Still, with ongoing advancements in 3D printing education and increased use of additive manufacturing across all major industries—from US Air Force to aerospace to medicine—it won’t be long before seamless integration is complete.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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JB wrote at 10/25/2015 3:19:27 PM:

Perhaps the 3d printer version of the b-52 got reclassified. Hence the 3...

Bill wrote at 10/21/2015 8:30:36 PM:

Actually, that plane is a B-52!

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