First 3-D printed part approved for AWACS
By John Parker, Staff Writer
/ Published January 14, 2016
TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The 552nd Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight recently won engineering approval to make and install the first 3-D printed part for E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft.
The part -- a plastic end cap for seat armrests -- isn't crucial to keeping the battle management platforms flying, but the manufacturing feat is an early milestone on the Air Force's road to save money and time using 3-D printing to repair and maintain aircraft.
Senior Master Sgt. Bradley Green, Fabrication Flight superintendent, said Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex engineers determined that the 3-D printer's specialized plastic met requirements for fire and smoke safety and they approved use of the part Dec. 18.
"The metals tech shop here is really leading the way in Air Force innovation and developing a new way of doing things -- making it leaner, faster, on demand," said Sergeant Green. "They're unlocking unlimited repair potential. It's the way of the future."
The Fabrication Flight's job is to repair or make new parts to replace worn-out or damaged components of E-3 Sentry planes and their related ground equipment, such as power generators and hydraulic systems.
The Fabrication Flight received an advanced Fortus 400mc 3-D printer last July. After initial training, the technicians immediately put it to use. Maintainers reverse-engineered the armrest cap with calipers and other measuring tools to print out a perfect copy.
Taking advantage of the 3-D printer's production-grade capabilities, the flight has also developed a new way to make replacement air duct brackets used inside the E-3's wings. The new method will save an estimated $540,960 a year, said Staff Sgt. Ryan McBride, assistant shopkeeper with the 552nd Maintenance Squadron's metals technology section.
The roughly U-shaped, 5-inch wide metal brackets were being made by technicians manually cutting out the initial sheet metal shapes, drilling individual holes and making bends in the sheet metal one at a time.
The Fabrication Flight, part of the 552nd Air Control Wing, revamped that manufacturing process with another relatively new tool in the shop -- a computerized water-jet cutter. High-pressure jets now cut the initial flats and add the holes, eliminating human error.
To bend the flat parts into the correct shape, Sergeant McBride designed and made two high-strength plastic form molds with the 3-D printer. A high-pressure press brake forces the metal into a top and bottom mold to create the precise bends.
"We were able to take an eight hour job that sheet metal was doing start to finish and with our new technology we're down to an hour and 30 minutes per bracket," Sergeant McBride said. "We're saving weekends for some people."
The innovation is also significant for maintenance because the manufacturer of the '70s-era plane doesn't make the brackets anymore -- a common problem with the Air Force's older models.
"We're actually making a part that had zero in stock, and we're refilling the supply system worldwide because of the stuff that we've just created with a 3-D printer and a water jet," the sergeant added.
Capt. Danielle Ackerman, 552nd MXS operations officer, said maintainers were energized with innovative ideas soon after the 3-D printer was fired up.
"That's the best part of it for me," Captain Ackerman said. "It's not just this one invention. It's the mindset that has spread through this flight and it starts with someone like Sergeant McBride who got excited about the 3-D printer and started playing with it."