US Air Force to investigate using additive manufacturing techniques for replacement parts

The US Air Force Research Laboratory has awarded a $10 million research project to the America Makes – National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute.

The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL; Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH) has awarded a $10 million research project for refining the efficiency of Air Force aircraft part replacements to the America Makes – National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (Youngstown, OH). This will be the first project under a new five-year cooperative agreement between AFRL and America Makes, which was created to help advance the US additive manufacturing (3D printing) industry.

The goal of the project, according to Dr. Dennis Butcher, the America Makes program manager, is to improve the efficiency of Air Force air logistics complexes in rapidly replacing parts for legacy and other military aircraft by developing, demonstrating, and guiding the transition to the use of additive manufacturing and other types of related advanced manufacturing technology.

The University of Dayton Research Institute (Dayton, OH) will be the principal research leader on the project, while Youngstown State University will be the co-leader of the technical efforts. In addition to both universities, more than half of the 25 team partners, comprised of representatives of academia, industry, and the Air Force, are located in northeast Ohio. The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and Air Force Reserve Command's 910th Airlift Wing (AW), located at Youngstown Air Reserve Station, will also play roles in the project.

America Makes has awarded $8 million in AFRL-managed funds through the cooperative agreement from the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, Manufacturing and Industrial Base Technology Division, the institute said in a news release. An additional $2.87 million in matching costs has been contributed by the award project team for a total of $10.87 million in funding for the research project. Both universities are sharing the funding equally throughout the project.

In addition to Air Force officials from three air logistics complexes at Robins Air Force Base (Warner Robins, GA) Hill Air Force Base (Ogden, UT), and Tinker Air Force Base (Oklahoma City, OK), the team will also work with several other Air Force and Defense Department bases and depots. For example, the 910th AW is home to the Department of Defense (DOD)'s only full-time, fixed-wing aerial spray mission.

"Since depot-level maintenance for their unique aerial spray mission systems is performed at the Youngstown base, the 910th (AW) is a good candidate for the application of additive manufacturing and other advanced manufacturing techniques to support sustainment activities," says Dr. Mary Kinsella, the additive manufacturing product team leader.

To deal with challenges related to the sustainment of its fleet of aircraft, aircraft support vehicles, and machinery, this project will focus on additive manufacturing and related advanced manufacturing techniques such as reverse engineering tools, 3D scanners, computer-aided design software, and nondestructive evaluation systems.

The America Makes public-private partnership model provides unique opportunities to leverage current member investments and to better align the internal research and development activities of industrial, academic, and government partners to a national additive technology roadmap.

"The challenge lies in finding replacement parts for an aging fleet, whose planes are flying well beyond their planned service lives," Brian Rice, the head of UDRI's multi-scale composites and polymers division stated in a UDRI news release. "One of the biggest hurdles to maintaining legacy aircraft is securing out-of-production spare parts. In some cases, suppliers have gone out of business, or they will no longer support the production of spare parts for older aircraft. It's just not profitable for them."

The answer lies in additive manufacturing (3D printing), which can be used to print actual spare parts as needed, or to create very large tooling and molds to be used in traditional forms of manufacturing.

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