A C-5 Galaxy, with the 301st Airlift Squadron, Travis Air Force Base, California, takes off from a runway in Lungi, Sierra Leone. (Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Technical Sergeant Justin D. Pyle)
 

Air Force begins 3D printing nonstructural aircraft parts

The 60th Maintenance Squadron (60th MXS) at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, is the first field unit in the United States Air Force to produce approved nonstructural aircraft parts using 3D printing – an additive manufacturing technique. The first parts: latrine covers on the Lockheed C-5M Super Galaxy strategic airlifter.

Initially three maintainers in the squadron were trained and certified with Stratasys F900 industrial-sized 3D printer which prints parts up to 36-by-24-by-36 inches in Ultem 9085 thermoplastic – a material ideal for aerospace applications based on its flexibility, density, strength, weight, and flame retardant properties. The printer itself is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force Advanced Technology and Training Center and prints from an online database of parts developed by the University of Dayton Research Institute.

 

3D-printed latrine cover

The first aircraft parts authorized for use after being printed on the Stratasys F900 3D printer are Lockheed C-5M Super Galaxy latrine covers. (Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Louis Briscese)

 

“The Joint Engineering Data Management Information Control System is where we go to download already approved blueprints,” says Master Sergeant John Higgs, 60th MXS aircraft metals technology section chief. “Now, the University of Dayton Research Institute is working with the engineers to get those parts they developed into JEDMICS.”

 

Stratasys F900 3D printer prints aircraft parts at Travis Air Force Base

A Stratasys F900 3D printer prints aircraft parts at Travis Air Force Base, California. (Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Louis Briscese)

 

“It brings us a capability that we’ve never had before,” continues Higgs, referring to the opportunities to create needed parts while saving time and money. “There’s so many possibilities available to us right now. We’re just scratching the surface.”

 

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While latrine covers may not seem like vital, mission critical components, its because they’re not. And typically, these types of parts don’t have as high as a priority for replacement.

“The latrine covers we just printed usually take about a year from the time they’ve been ordered to the time they’ve been delivered,” says Higgs. “We printed two of the covers in 73 hours.”

While the turnaround time for additively manufactured components might have shortened, establishing the capability was a lengthy process which included eight months of system setup including facility prep, installation, and certification.

 

 

“UDRI has not trained or certified anyone else at the field level except the three of us here at Travis Air Force Base,” says Technical Sergeant Rogelio Lopez, 60th MXS assistant aircraft metals technology section chief, one of the three certified maintainers. “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.”

 

Maintainer feeds Ultem into 3D-printer

Technical Sergeant Rogelio Lopez, 60th MXS assistant aircraft metals technology section chief, loads Ultem 9085 material into a canister for use in the Stratasys F900 3D printer. (Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Louis Briscese)

 

Now with parts in production, there’s a new sense of urgency within the organization and requests from outside the organization are already coming in. But ultimately, the maintenance shop wants to use the printer for more than just aircraft parts.

 

Check out SAE International’s Additive Manufacturing Bundle

 

“We already have a list from the Air Force level to help them print and to backfill some supplies. This will ensure other bases can replace items sooner than expected with our help,” says Higgs, “We have the capability to print parts on a production scale for a lot more customers. The overall goal is to generate products for every organization to support whatever needs they may have.”

 

This story was originally reported by Louis Briscese, 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs.

 

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William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.

Contact him regarding any article or collaboration ideas by e-mail at william.kucinski@sae.org.

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