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3-D printer creates models that save time, money

Tracy Rycroft uses a laser scanner to capture part dimensions used to construct a 3-D model. After programming, the printer can run on its own 24 hours a day without manning. Rycroft is a 573rd Commodities Maintenance Squadron mechanical engineering technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tommie Horton)

Tracy Rycroft uses a laser scanner to capture part dimensions used to construct a 3-D model. After programming, the printer can run on its own 24 hours a day without manning. Rycroft is a 573rd Commodities Maintenance Squadron mechanical engineering technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tommie Horton)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. (AFNS) -- As the intricacies of 3-D printing became more widespread, its capabilities have gained traction in the 402nd Commodities Maintenance Group here.

Since the prototyping machine came online in December 2014, a few parts have already been created using the technology, which will not only save time during the production process, but a significant long-term cost savings to the government.

The art of 3-D printing is essentially the process of creating a three-dimensional product from a digital file. The work being performed is considered metrology -- measuring things, capturing data and comparing it to drawings to ensure there is dimensional accuracy. Those working with the printer are part of the group's programming office.

In the 573rd Commodities Maintenance Squadron, 3-D printing is accomplished through a variety of software, one called the Computer Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application (CATIA), which creates a virtual 3-D solid model on a computer screen.

Tracy Rycroft, a mechanical engineering technician, recently modeled an F-15 Eagle seal plate from engineer-drafted blueprints. Aircraft parts can be checked for dimensions using laser scanning but for this process he used computer-aided software to create a model that would be uploaded to the new 3-D prototyping machine.

"Machining this part out of aluminum would've cost in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $15,000 -- we were able to print it for $20," he said. "And with machining time, it would probably be about a 40-hour job. We were able to print it in six."

The plate, which seals the F-15 landing gear door, had never been manufactured here before. Bill Knight, a mechanical engineering technician, estimates the unit saved about 200 hours on this job alone.

"This is where the 3-D machine will really come in handy," Knight said. "Before sending this out to the shop floor to be machined out of expensive material, we modeled it first, printed it, and took it out to the aircraft to be fitted. If anything isn't quite right, we can come back and change what we need.

"As a result, we can now manufacture items with the confidence of knowing our end product will be right the first time," he added.

The current printer can be compared to the size of a compact, free-standing, two-door refrigerator seen in apartments. A window on top allows viewers to peer inside while parts are molded on a work tray capable of building a part as large as 16-by-14-by-16 inches, while a bottom area includes a front-loading bay where spools of plastic model and support material are loaded.

Once a model is created using the software, it's loaded onto the 3-D printer. The modeled parts are made from various plastic materials. The plastic resembles weed eater string, and is melted inside the printer as it's shaped into whatever part is needed.

The shop has created a variety of projects to date, including an F-15 glare shield, and most recently, a small gear for an non-destructive inspection (NDI) X-ray machine that took only 30 minutes to print.

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