DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
The 7th Equipment Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight fabricates aircraft and ground equipment parts that are no longer produced or supplied by manufacturers.
When the flight fabricates an aircraft part, the process is long and tedious. There can be no room for error.
At the beginning of 2022, the Aircraft Metals Technology section received a scanner, a laptop and an application that scans a part with total accuracy. Then polymer 3D printing technology creates prototype part mold for fitting on the aircraft.
Why did the Air Force spend $100,000 on this new equipment? According to 2nd Lt. Scott Huda, 7th EMS Fabrication Flight commander, the answer was simple.
“The B-1 has been around for some time and has accumulated plenty of flying hours. Parts wear out or break and it is very time consuming to replace them,” Huda said. “We used to use dental putty to take an imprint of the part, either on the aircraft or removed to our shop. Our machining shop used the hardened putty to make the part.”
Huda said the putty wasn’t always perfect and if the part wasn’t precisely correct, they had to repeat the process. Sometimes the team would measure the part or use measurements stated in the blueprints. If both sources of measurements were incorrect the process is repeated.
“With the scanner, which takes a few minutes to produce a functional 3D model, and the 3D plastic mold, which is completed anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours, the replacement part process saves 80 percent of our man-hours,” said Tech. Sgt. Jesse Gonzalez, 7th EMS Aircraft Metal Technology Section Chief.
The commercial sector has been using scanners and 3D printers for years. If one plant makes 10,000 parts per year, between labor costs and man-hour savings, the impact is monumental. At Dyess, the fabrication flight makes about 2,000 parts a year. Huda believes the new technology will increase the volume since the process is 80 percent faster. In addition, the scanner is 100 percent accurate.
Many people would think that a part in one aircraft is the exact size as in another aircraft; therefore, it would be easy to duplicate a part in the scanner database.
“Not true,” Huda noted. “Over the life of the B-1, parts have been locally manufactured to keep jets flying. Ensuring that these parts are made to specifications is extremely important as even a small mismeasurement can be detrimental to its performance. A great example of this are the bolts that help keep the wings attached to the B-1; while they may only be a small piece of the aircraft, our $100,000 investment has ensured that the $12 million wing is properly secured.”
As the total Air Force fleet ages, manufacturers don’t find it cost-effective to produce and inventory aircraft parts. The Air Force must remain ready to fly an aged fleet, even as newer aircraft are introduced into the inventory. For little cost, this new technology can reduce the time a B-1 is in maintenance waiting for replacement parts by two weeks.
A few fabrication flight members spent about one month learning how to use the equipment on their own. Once they became proficient, they trained other members of the team. As a result of this new technology, the Aircraft Metals Technology shop can increase production while having confidence that everything they produce will be the exact size, thus eliminating rework. Huda said adopting the new technology and increasing productivity was a team effort.