Certifying parts for 3D printing remains a relatively new practice for the military, and nonstructural parts are first in focus.
Last summer, we heard about a perhaps unexpected use of 3D printing in the US Air Force: a coffee cup. Before a 3D printer was brought in to help, the Air Force had spent $56,000 in three years to replace mugs with broken handles.
Certified 3D Printing at Travis Air Force Base
They’re expanding on usage of 3D printing to address other surprisingly high-cost problems, and it’s starting with the 60th Maintenance Squadron (60th MXS).
This field unit is the Air Force’s first to be certified to use a 3D printer to create nonstructural aircraft parts, and they’re slowly ramping up their use.
The squadron’s F900 3D printer, installed at Travis Air Force Base, is FAA- and Air Force Advanced Technology and Training Center-certified. To date, only three technicians have been trained in use of the system.
“UDRI has not trained or certified anyone else at the field level except the three of us here at Travis Air Force Base,.Now that we’re signed off on our training records, we’re the only ones who can operate, maintain and print on the Stratasys F900,” said Tech. Sgt. Rogelio Lopez, 60th MXS assistant aircraft metals technology section chief, who has been involved in the project since it was first put into place.
UDRI — the University of Dayton Research Institute — has approved blueprints for certain parts and created a database the technicians can use to 3D print spare and replacement parts. That database, the Joint Engineering Data Management Information Control System (JEDMICS), is an invaluable resource for the team, as they already have access to blueprints that will work in their specialized field.
To get the 3D printer up and running, and team trained, took eight months. This included installation and certification processes along with UDRI instructor certification for the three operators. And now that all is fully operational, the Air Force is ready to print.
So where is the 60th MXS starting? A very important room for any operation: the bathroom.
Due to the noncritical role of parts like latrine covers, it’s easy for busy bases to develop a backlog. Should one break, a replacement could take around a year from order to delivery — or at least, it did with standard means of operation.
Earlier this month, the 60th MXS completed its first approved 3D printing project, 3D printing two latrine covers in 73 hours.
The covers are designated for the C-5M Super Galaxy, which the Air Force describes as “the largest aircraft in the Air Force inventory.” The hefty strategic transport aircraft will now house the new 3D printed covers — obtained happily in rather less than a year, even if we count the full setup and certification process in the timing.
Beyond The Bathroom
The project is set to expand, naturally, beyond the latrine.
“It’s exciting because the Air Force is implementing new technology at the field level,” Lopez said. “The Air Force continues to encourage Airmen to be innovative by finding new ways to streamline processes and save resources.”
Innovating in the field is a major advantage for the military, and why so many branches of so many nations’ armed forces are turning to 3D printing. Creating new, improved, and replacement parts — especially in the field, where supply lines are often a substantial challenge — is a major benefit for these forces.
Travis Air Force Base, for its part, remains to date the only operational field unit with an industrial 3D printer. Others have certainly taken notice, and the team has noted demand from other bases for backfilling supplies to help with outside replacement needs.
Via US Air Force