3D printer making F-35 parts at Hill AFB
The F-35 is known as a "next generation" fighter jet, so it only makes sense its parts be made through an innovative, modern approach.Hill Air Force Base's 388th Maintenance Group has recently started manufacturing certain F-35 replacement parts with a 3D printer. Base officials hope the new method will increase availability and drive down costs for the components.
"We’re always driving for speed, safety and quality," said 388th MG commander Col. Michael Miles. "But cost-effectiveness is also a priority. This new tech has great cost-avoidance potential and provides rapid repair capabilities."
Operating off of an electronic data source, 3D printers are controlled by a computer and put down layers of material like gypsum and plastic to create objects of nearly any shape. The technology has an almost endless spectrum of application.
Tech. Sgt. Scott Mathews, assistant manager of the 388th MG's Air Force Repair and Enhancement Program, said when his shop receives damaged parts that can be reproduced by the 3D printer, early returns are indeed showing maintainers can get them back to the supply chain faster and for less money.
“It’s much more cost effective for the Air Force than buying new parts,” he said.
So far, the team has been reproducing simple plastic parts like wiring harnesses, grommets, fasteners, housing boxes and cable splitters. The process is still in its infancy and the airmen in the unit have been refining the operation through trial and error — making their own in-house designs generated with computer software.
One of their first creations was a small-scale replica of the F-35.
Mathews said in many areas, his shop is "getting away from a lot of fancy metals and getting into composites and plastics" — a reality that's made 3D printing more workable.
But there's been positive signs that even more complex parts, requiring sturdier material, could one day be manufactured in-house.
"There’s one printer (where) you can print with aluminum," Mathews said. "That opens up a whole new world of opportunities. When you look at all of the different parts we could manufacture ... it just boggles the mind, the things we could (make) on base. It's just insane."
Hill received its first two F-35s in September 2015. By the end of 2019, the base will house three fighter squadrons made up of 78 jets. The active duty 388th Fighter Wing and the reserve 419th fly and maintain the jets.
The base’s Ogden Air Logistics Complex performs maintenance on all of the U.S. Air Force F-35s
"There's a sense of pride knowing you played at least a minuscule role of getting them airborne," Mathews said.
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