HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah, -- Inside a simple-looking building just off of Hill’s flight line, Airmen are tinkering with advanced technology to bring the future of cost-effective maintenance to America’s most advanced fighter aircraft.
The 388th Maintenance Group’s Air Force Repair and Enhancement Program shop recently acquired a 3-D printer with the hope of increasing availability and driving down costs for certain F-35 replacement parts.
“In the sortie generation cycle we’re always driving for speed, safety and quality to provide our operators what they need in terms of aircraft availability and readiness, but cost-effectiveness is also a priority. This new tech has great cost-avoidance potential and provides rapid repair capabilities,” said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander.
3-D printing, also called additive manufacturing, uses a computer-controlled machine to form automatically-fed material into a three dimensional object. In this case, aircraft parts.
“In the AFREP program, we receive parts that have been damaged and fix them so that they can be returned to the supply chain more quickly,” said Tech Sgt. Scott Mathews, assistant AFREP manager. “It’s much more cost effective for the Air Force than buying new parts.”
Maintainers are excited about 3-D printing because it could potentially save thousands of dollars for simple plastic parts like wiring harnesses, grommets, fasteners, housing boxes and cable splitters. The Airmen have been learning how to use the printer by reaching out to other AFREP shops that use them, as well as through trial and error. They've been working with in-house designs they generate with the aid of computer software.
“Initially, it takes a time investment to create a design template, but once that’s done, the printing goes pretty fast,” said Mathews. “We’ll have the ability to make one grommet for a wiring harness instead of spending thousands of dollars and waiting on a completely new wiring harness.”
There may be some time before the team can actually provide printed parts to the maintenance shops’ supply chain. Every new parts process needs to be tested, proven and approved to ensure quality and safety before being used on an aircraft. Once the parts are approved then the machine and process will also need to be certified by outside Air Force engineers.
But, the team is looking forward to the challenge of establishing an F-35 repairable program and exploring all the possibilities that lay ahead.
“I love this job. It’s like brainstorming and troubleshooting all day long. It’s like getting paid to tinker around in the garage,” said Mathews, who is from Bremerton, Washington, and followed his older brother into a career in the Air Force.