US Air Force integrates 3D printing into maintenance supply chain

US Air Force-sponsored research into rapid part replacement is to make use of the Figure 4 3D Printing Platform designed and developed by 3D Systems.

3D Printing - Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology will be used to supply low criticality components for legacy sustainment equipment – image courtesy of University of Dayton Research Institute.
Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology will be used to supply low criticality components for legacy sustainment equipment – image courtesy of University of Dayton Research Institute.

Overseen by America Makes – the national additive manufacturing innovation institute, and led by the University of Dayton Research Institute, this initiative project brings together 3D printing and aerospace manufacturing leaders, including 3D Systems, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and Northrop Grumman.

Through this project, the US Air Force will explore how 3D Systems’ Figure 4 Production system can be used to reproduce aircraft components for decades old planes that may no longer have reliable sources of replacement parts.

This effort demonstrates capabilities for rapidly delivering replacement parts just-in-time without minimum order quantities – eliminating the need for parts warehousing and reducing time of aircraft on ground.

According to America Makes, legacy aircraft used by the US Air Force require parts that may be out-of-production due to manufacturing obsolescence, costs to create, low-quantity requirements, poor documentation, or other availability-related challenges.

The Maturation of Advanced Manufacturing for Low-cost Sustainment (MAMLS) programme – an America Makes scheme funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory – has just reached Stage III and announced multiple awards on three key topics that will have the most impact for defence maintenance, sustainment and logistics and the overall strategic readiness of the USAF and DoD.

While 3D Systems’ Direct Metal Printing and stereolithography technology had been featured in prior MAMLS phases, this new project marks the first time the US Air Force will deploy what it calls Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology to supply low criticality components, including electrical connectors, knobs, elastomeric grommets, and spacers for legacy sustainment equipment.

Figure 4 was reportedly selected by this team over any other DLP machine due to its high speed and level of accuracy.

The combination of speed and accuracy complemented by a light-based UV curing process that takes minutes versus hours with heat-based curing processes, yields a superior additive manufacturing throughput and time-to-part.

This substantially cuts down the time required to manufacture parts, enabling faster repair and reduced time of aircraft on ground.