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Additive manufacturing capability could generate future efficiencies and cost-savings

Jefferson Stewart, engineer with Technology Innovations at Arnold Air Force Base, looks through a microscope at one of the parts recently fabricated using additive manufacturing. Stewart and other members of the Technology Innovations Branch have been looking at additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing of metals, as a way to make hardware needed for AEDC operations. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Deidre Ortiz)

Jefferson Stewart, engineer with Technology Innovations at Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn., looks through a microscope at one of the parts recently fabricated using additive manufacturing. Stewart and other members of the Technology Innovations Branch have been looking at additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing of metals, as a way to make hardware needed for Arnold Engineering Development Complex operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Deidre Ortiz)

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. (AFNS) -- Additive manufacturing, a process commonly known as three-dimensional printing, describes technologies that build 3-D objects by adding layers. Team members in the Technology Innovation Branch at Arnold Air Force Base are looking at AM as a way to create efficiencies and cost-savings for the Arnold AFB Engineering Development Complex.

AM typically uses a computer, 3-D modeling software, machine equipment and layering material. Once an item is designed using software, the AM equipment then reads the data to fabricate the object.

Jefferson Stewart, Technology Innovations engineer at Arnold AFB, explained that there are two types of AM.

“One is the additive manufacturing of plastics or polymers and the other is actual metal printing,” he said. “My focus on AM has been for metals, particularly copper alloys.”

Stewart explained that through a small Innovation Grant, members of the Technology Innovations Branch have been working with other organizations to develop a capability to fabricate hardware that is needed for AEDC operations.

“We have a small, collaborative effort with NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, who has a lot of expertise with metal printing,” he said.

According to Stewart, AM is beginning to revolutionize metal forming and is ideally suited for building high-complexity, low-production rate hardware. The current effort is to fabricate parts for the test facilities using 3-D printing technology.

“Our initial effort has been to prototype arc heater parts as a way to greatly simplify the complex fabrication methods that are currently being used and possibly to improve the design,” he said.

It’s anticipated that the ability to 3-D print these parts will allow for a much quicker turnaround for testing in the arc heaters.

Tracy McDonald, Arnold AFB system engineer, added that the technology of 3-D printing, while not new, “is still evolving.”

“Rodney Stewart and I researched this back in 2002, it was called metal sintering at that time,” he said. “I still have one of the 2002 sample models in my desk and remember how incredible it was at that time that it was possible to do something like this. I now look at the 2002 model and think how primitive it is compared to today's capability.”

For now, the Arnold AFB Model and Machine Shop primarily uses mills and lathes to make custom metal items that are used by the test facilities. However, in the future, 3-D printing may complement the fabrication work being completed at the Model Shop.

“I would like to have this capability at the Model Shop but we presently have other needs,” McDonald said. “A process like this takes a lot of resources and learning to get it into operation, it is on our capital investment list as a future need. I would like to partner with another facility and learn more about the process before we take on the capability.”

AEDC Deputy Technical Director Mike Glennon added that AM is only one of many ongoing innovative efforts at Arnold AFB.

“Our leadership and test teams are continuously looking at ways to implement new technology and new ideas and evaluating their potential cost-savings and benefits,” he said.

AEDC also has an Innovation Grant Program in place, in which engineers send in proposals and are potentially awarded funding to develop the ideas laid out in their proposals.

At the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in February, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David L. Goldfein stated that the integration of new ideas and technologies is important to the future of the Air Force.

“From the lab bench to the flight line, it’s not just about who has the best ideas,” he said. “What matters for us is who can act on these ideas and deliver the lethality that outpaces our adversaries. And I would offer to you in today’s complex global security environment, victory goes not (to the) innovator, but to the rapid integrator of ideas.”