Jan 29, 2016 | By Andre

With all of the hype and general excitement surrounding 3D printing these days, it’s easy to forget that the research dedicated to advancing the technology happens for a reason. The fact is, 3D printing is sometimes the only way to produce something from a manufacturing perspective; it is also often the most cost-effective way of getting things done. The 552nd Air Control Wing of the US Air Force has taken both of these aspects to 3D printing to heart after approving, for the first time, 3D printed parts to be used on the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) surveillance aircraft.

While the 3D printed part—a plastic end cap for seat armrests—doesn’t play a crucial role in terms of aircraft performance, it's an important cost-savings first step when it comes to the US Air Force’s adoption to 3D printing technology.

The part was made possible after the 552nd Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight (department) received a Stratasys made Fortus 400mc 3D printer last July. After some training, the 3D printing technicians reverse engineered the armrest cap and soon 3D printed the part using the machine's production-grade capabilities. They later received approval to install the endcap into the aircraft after the specialized 3D printed plastic passed fire and smoke safety guidelines.

Senior Master Sgt. Bradley Green, Fabrication Flight superintendent said that the “tech shop here is really leading the way in Air Force innovation and developing a new way of doing things — making it leaner, faster, on demand.” Then further stating that “they’re unlocking unlimited repair potential. It’s the way of the future.”

And even though the 3D printed bracket is the first part to be approved for the AWACS aircraft, the fabrication department has been innovating cost-saving measures for ground use as well. They’ve also created two high-strength 3D printed form moulds in conjunction with a pressurized water jet system as a means to cut holes for replacement air duct brackets.

In this case, Sgt. Bradley Green states that “we were able to take an eight-hour job that sheet metal was doing start to finish and, with our new technology, we’re down to an hour and 30 minutes per bracket,” McBride said. “We’re saving weekends for some people.”

From a money savings perspective, the 3D printed end-caps being used on the plane were usually sourced at $8 a pop, but now they can be 3D printed in 10 minutes for $2.50. The annual cost-savings for this small component alone is estimated to be $1000 a year.

Sergeant McBride

The bigger savings actually comes from the 3D printed moulds. It is estimated the new, more efficient way of getting that job done comes with an annual saving of $540,960 a year. So right away you can see how a continued commitment into 3D printing technology can make an immediate impact.

Coming full circle, I mentioned earlier that another advantage to 3D printing is the ability to produce things that simply can’t be had any other way. The fact is, the brackets being remade fits into this space as well because Boeing, themanufacturer of this particular 1970s era plane doesn’t make the specific brackets anymore.

An interesting endnote is that 3D printing in this pocket of US Air Force maintenance started when Staff Sgt. and assistant shopkeeper Ryan McBride started becoming curious about 3D printers in his own time. “That’s the best part of it to me,” Captain Danielle Ackerman proclaimed, “It’s not just this one invention. It’s the mindset that has spread through this flight and it starts with someone like Sergeant McBride who got excited about the 3D printer and started playing with it.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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