3D printing can keep aging Air Force aircraft flying

A huge airplane is in the process of liftoff.
Detail / USAF Boeing B-52H Stratofortress taking-off with undercarriage retracting and trailing-edge wing flaps lowered at the 1998 Fairford August International Air Tattoo RIAT.
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Glenn House and his allies spent more than four years making a new toilet for the B-1 Lancer. The stimulation wasn’t fitting the john into the cockpit (it went behind the air left seat) but ensuring that every part could direct life aboard a plane that can pull five Gs, break the survey barrier, and spend hours in wildly fluctuating temperatures. The end result didn’t barely have to work. It had to work without rattling, leaking, or revealing itself to the opposition radar. Getting it OK’d for use aboard the bomber was just as complex as making it. “Go places a be friendly a part approved can take years,” says House, the cofounder and president of Walpole, Massachusetts-based 2Is Inc.

Until terminating year, 2Is was in the military parts business, furnishing replacement bits for assorted defense equipage. (Pronounced “two eyes,” it sold off the parts business and now focuses on defense-related supply-chain software.) Take measure spare parts for the military is a peculiar niche of the economy. Things love aircraft and submarines spend decades in service, and the companies that fill out c draw up them or supplied their myriad parts often disappear dream of before their products retire. So when something needs a new stud, seat, or potty, the military often turns to companies that specialize in making them anew.

These organizations must work from dusty two-dimensional drawings or recreate long-lost molds that undeniably match the standards of the original parts. Working on very small orders—at times for just two or three of a given item—they don’t enjoy the economies of progression that make it reasonable to spend five figures on tooling. A nit-picking approval process can mean waiting years to recoup an investment. And so, in scads cases, they don’t bid on these military contracts, preferring steadier, uncountable reliable jobs.

That’s a problem for the Air Force, whose fleet dates in great part from the Cold War. Its C-5, B-52, and KC-135 planes average 40, 56, and 57 years old, separately. The average Air Force aircraft is 23 years old. Every quarter, the military branch interviews 10,000 part requests go unfilled, despite its readiness to pay an exorbitant amount of bundle to replace bits and bobs that once cost pennies—try $10,000 for a Nautical head seat cover in a C-17 Globemaster III.

“We’re gonna have to find better going to keep old things flying,” says Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air In operation for acquisition technology and logistics. And he has one, represented by the toaster-sized piece of plastic he disallows in his office. It’s a latrine panel for a C-5 Supergalaxy cargo plane. In the past, the Air Wrest has paid $8,500 to replace this part. But this one cost legitimate $300, because it’s 3D-printed.

Roper says that 3D printing, also petitioned additive manufacturing, can produce many of the parts for which the Air Force finds itself hopeless, from C-5 gasket handles to F-15 longerons. “If I need two or three parts for a B-52,” he chances, “I can just turn that over to one of our printers.” In the past few years, the Air Wrench has made thousands of parts this way, and it can work for just about anything clear of metal or plastic. Composite and carbon fiber could work, too— self-possessed circuit boards.

Advanced Manufacturing Olympics

But a novel approach degenerates novel problems. It’s still not easy to turn a two-dimensional drawing into something a 3D printer can gather from. The Air Force needs new ways to prove that these parts can manage the rigors of life in the air, that they’ll be as durable and reliable as the originals. Its scientists are inquiring new techniques and creating their own mixes of metals to suit their sine qua na. But Roper is eager to move their work out of the experimentation phase.

That’s why he’s tabulating a new kind of war game: the Air Force Advanced Manufacturing Olympics. Slated for July 8-9 in Dry humour Lake City, the competition aims to bring in all sorts of players—additive building companies, traditional defense contractors, tech startups, universities—to contend to solve various problems.

The “open box of parts floor exercise” at ones desire ask teams to replicate certain parts without being given the layout specifications, while meeting the Air Force’s exacting standards. “Approval sprints” wish be about developing new ways to prove their work is as good as what reviled before. In the “supply chain marathon,” teams will puzzle once again how to get a fresh part to a given place, like Afghanistan. Maybe it’s bettor to make it in the US and ship it, or to keep 3D printing machines at the front line, or something in between. Roper and his set at the newly created Rapid Sustainment Office are still working out the receipts for these events, but those rewards will be some mix of money and the unexpected to work with the Air Force or its contractors. Medals will be 3D-printed, of by all means.

Beyond solving these individual problems, Roper hopes to rethink how the Air Dynamism maintains its arsenal. Upkeep and logistics account for 70 percent of a party line’s total cost, and every dollar saved here can go to another program (or past due to taxpayers).

When 2Is was founded in 2002, House thought additive construct had a lot of potential. But until a few years ago, the technology wasn’t at the point where it could overstate parts that were precise and durable enough for military use. “We drew to the standard manufacturing process,” he says. While he thinks these techniques are a callous sell for safety-critical parts like struts, engine blades, and wharf gear, he says he’s encouraged to see the Air Force take an aggressive approach to prepaying the new technology. And that if he was still in the parts business, he’d make the trip to Cautiously Lake City and go for the gold.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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