Mar 2, 2017 | By Benedict

Fleet Readiness Center Southeast(FRCSE), the largest tenant command aboard Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida, has 3D printed its first aircraft component, a forearm-length piece of air duct tubing made from a composite material called Ultum 1085.

Randy Meeker and the 3D printed aircraft part

To the untrained eye, it looks like nothing more than a misshapen banana. However, the 3D printed piece of air duct tubing lying on the desk of Navy engineer Randy Meeker marks an important moment in Florida’s naval history. Since 2014, Fleet Readiness Center Southeast (FRCSE), a tenant command responsible for building almost every type of Navy aircraft, has been operating a 3D printer. That 3D printer has been used to fabricate prototype parts, support equipment, and tooling. Never before, however, has it been used to fabricate part of a real aircraft—until now.

Back in January, FRCSE aerospace engineer Matthew Hawn asked the facility’s manufacturing department for help: the original manufacturer of the T-44 Pegasus had exhausted its supply of a piece of air duct used to circulate air throughout the planes cockpit. With no spares available on site, another option would have to be explored. Up stepped Meeker, a tooling maker and 3D printing specialist at the facility, who offered an unprecedented suggestion.

“We went over to manufacturing and took a look at making a vacuum form of the tube, which is how the original part was made,” Hawn said. “Then Randy brought up the possibility of 3D printing the part. From there, the cost analysis between the two showed 3D printing was cheaper and offered a better material.”

When all involved had given their seal of approval to the additive manufacturing plan, Meeker pressed ahead with 3D printing the air duct tubing. But the tooling maker saw an extra opportunity in his task: with 3D design and 3D printing equipment at his disposal, Meeker was able to not only replicate the aircraft part, but to improve upon it.

“The original piece was made out of two pieces of clear plastic tubing that had a flange all the way down its length,” Meeker explained. “I redesigned it to work better than the plastic model. It didn’t need to be two pieces when I could print it as one piece.”

Meeker’s eye for innovation can be traced back to his extracurricular activities working as a pit crewman on a racing team. In that arena, the tooling maker noticed that some teams were 3D printing end-use parts for their racing cars. And although aircraft are a different proposition to cars, Meeker believed he could replicate what he had seen on the track at FRCSE.

T-44 Pegasus (Image: Global Security)

“There is a lot of responsibility on the engineer for these parts that are actually used in aircraft,” Meeker said. “It’s a whole new world of technology, and it’s their responsibility to make sure it can be used safely. That’s why this particular project was a good first candidate because it’s not a flight-critical part, but it’s a step forward in incorporating 3D printed parts into aircraft.”

As the 3D printed air duct tubing sits ready for installation into a waiting T-44 Pegasus, even the highest-ranking staff at FRCSE are excited about what this project might mean for the Navy’s future.

“This is an awesome milestone for our facility,” said Commanding Officer Capt. Chuck Stuart. “It shows the innovative approaches our artisans and engineers incorporate to help support the U.S. military every day.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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marcc wrote at 3/2/2017 4:42:00 PM:

I suspect that's a typo and therefore Ultem not Ultum and ex GE Plastics now Sabic material?

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