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AF researching advanced manufacturing techniques for replacement parts

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFNS) -- The Air Force Research Laboratory 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 in Youngstown, Ohio.

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 U.S. 3-D printing industry, also known as additive manufacturing.

“The goal of this Directed Project Opportunity 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,” said Dr. Dennis Butcher, the America Makes program manager.

The University of Dayton Research Institute 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 here and Air Force Reserve Command’s 910th Airlift Wing, 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 AFB, Georgia; Hill AFB, Utah; and Tinker AFB, Oklahoma; the team will also work with several other Air Force and Defense Department bases and depots. For example, the 910th AW is home to 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,” said Dr. Mary Kinsella, the additive manufacturing product team leader.

In order 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, 3-D scanners, computer-aided design software and non-destructive 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 road map.

“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 – commonly known as 3-D printing – which uses a computer-driven printer to deposit successive layers of polymer, metal or other media – from the bottom up – to create simple or complicated and intricate objects, as dictated by a 3-D, digital design file of the object, Rice said. Additive manufacturing can be used to print actual spare parts as needed, or it can be used to create very large tooling and molds to be used in traditional forms of manufacturing.