When our troops are in a war, readiness means everything – it even impacts the lethality and survivability of the warfighter. But readiness extends beyond the actual warfighter to the tools, vehicles, and weapons systems that they’re deployed with. This means that for America’s military personnel to always be ready for the missions, the military needs to be able to rapidly fix or replace parts.
At the moment, sections of the Department of Defense (DoD) heavily rely on traditional manufacturing methods that can come with high costs and high turnaround times. This means vehicles and aircraft can remain out of the fight for long periods while parts are procured, and repairs are made.
However, the United States Air Force (USAF) is collaborating with industry partners and academia to improve and expedite the manufacturing of crucial airplane parts, engines, and ground vehicles. The Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex (OC-ALC), Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Propulsion Directorate, and General Electric (GE), recently held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new facility that is designed to help revolutionize the parts manufacturing process – the Reverse Engineering and Critical Tooling (REACT) lab’s Metal Printing Facility.
To learn more about this exciting new facility and how advanced manufacturing (AM) can improve readiness across the DoD, the GovDesignHub spoke with Eric Bartlow, OC-ALC Technical Director, and Jason McCurry, 76th Commodities Maintenance Group REACT Branch Flight Chief.
GovDesignHub (GDH): What are REACT, PROACT, and IMPACT? What role does each play in the “OC-ALC innovation ecosystem?”
Eric Bartlow: REACT provides customer support for a wide variety of DoD customers in reverse engineering skills. These skills include technical data packages, sheet metal form block designs, numerical control designs, scanning, and dimensional analysis, along with additive manufacturing (AM) in polymers, four metals, and sand, and finally, engineering services both internal to the depot for prototyping and external to the depot for field level support. REACT is centered in our 76th Commodities Maintenance Group (CMXG).
PROACT stands for Process, Repair, Operations, and Critical Tooling. The PROACT program mainly focuses on additive repair for aircraft engine parts as well as technical data package development and polymer printing. This program is centered in our 76th Propulsion Maintenance Group (PMXG).
IMPACT is an acronym for Innovative Manufacturing Processes and Aircraft Critical Tooling. IMPACT is focused on point-of-use 3D printing and tooling to support aircraft repair and overhaul at OC-ALC. This program is centered in our 76th Aircraft Maintenance Group (AMXG).
In addition, our Physical Sciences Laboratory in our 76th Maintenance Support Group is our fourth Innovation Center in our Internal Innovation Ecosystem; they are a full spectrum testing and analysis organization second to none. This laboratory has a new CT scanner, complete testing services, and the largest scanning electron microscope in the world. They can characterize any material, do tensile testing, and will soon be able to provide CT scans of items so that we don’t have to conduct destructive tests for results or viability.
GDH: What is the Pacer Edge program? What is this pathfinder program looking to accomplish?
Jason McCurry: The Pacer Edge Program is an important initiative between the USAF and GE to reduce risk and showcase the application of AM in aerospace. The program is a phased approach with knowledge transfer between GE and USAF.
“Ultimately, the program is trying to develop solutions to answer ongoing diminishing sources of supply for some of the legacy engine platforms in the USAF.” — Jason McCurry
Ultimately, the program is trying to develop solutions to answer ongoing diminishing sources of supply for some of the legacy engine platforms in the USAF. Phase one established the initial additively manufactured component and the airworthiness certification process for metal AM. Phase two includes installing two GE Concept Laser M2 machines at OC-ALC with cobalt-chrome and nickel alloy 718 printing capabilities. Phase three will further AM technical data packages and invest in more organic (depot) AM printing capabilities.
GDH: Why is additive manufacturing considered a desirable or viable alternative to the creation of airplane parts? How does it compare to how these parts are traditionally created? What advantages would it deliver?
Jason McCurry: This is absolutely part-dependent. Additive manufacturing is an option that can be explored for a wide variety of aircraft, engines, ground support, and U.S. Air Force vehicle parts.
The desirability of additive manufactured parts is high across various platforms. This desire is based on the ability of AM to be quickly produced, light-weighted, iteratively designed, electronically stored versus physically stored, and meet the exact customer demand. However, during parts selection, the actual number of parts significantly dwindles due to viability issues.
Additively manufactured parts tend to be questioned more rigorously regarding production methodologies, post-processing, certification testing for airworthiness, and various other variables. Polymer AM is much easier to print and approve for use at this point. In comparison, metal AM is much more of a team effort to approve.
GDH: Are there concerns about longevity or durability when it comes to using additive manufacturing for aircraft and engine parts? Has this manufacturing process demonstrated the ability to create parts that meet the requirements of the austere environments and harsh conditions these vehicles operate in?
Jason McCurry: What we know about the characteristics of material printed additively is that we see correlating material results with existing manufacturing techniques. For example, additively printed metal alloys show comparable material characteristics to cast metal alloys.
“The key to longevity and durability is matching the appropriate materials and techniques to the required design standards.” — Jason McCurry
The key to longevity and durability is matching the appropriate materials and techniques to the required design standards.
GDH: The Air Force has partnered with GE for the Pacer program. What role is GE playing in the program? How is their involvement helping to advance the program?
Jason McCurry: From our perspective in REACT, GE provides a strong industry partner upon which we can rely for advice, guidance, and knowledge transfer. They have provided hours upon hours of in-depth machine training for our engineers and technicians on the GE Concept Laser M2 machines as well as powder handling, build set up, and post-processing.
GE’s involvement impacted some safety protocols and signage inside the REACT Metal Printing Facility. That ability to share information and immediately use it to ensure OC-ALC employees are safer and better prepared to do their job makes this partnership beneficial to us.
GDH: What other partners are involved in the “OC-ALC innovation ecosystem?” What role are they playing?
Eric Bartlow: We’ve mentioned our internal innovation ecosystem, but consider our partners our external innovation ecosystem. In the external ecosystem, we have a triad of partners in academia, industry, and other government agencies.
For academia, we focus on regional universities and colleges as well as national universities that are steeped in innovative technologies. For industry partners, we look for like-minded companies following the same innovative journey. Lastly, for other government agencies, we again partner with those taking the same innovative journey.
“What role these partners play is that of a force multiplier. We want to shorten our learning curves by combining like-minded partners willing to shoulder the difficult task of breaking glass ceilings in the innovative trade space.” — Eric Bartlow
What role these partners play is that of a force multiplier. We want to shorten our learning curves by combining like-minded partners willing to shoulder the difficult task of breaking glass ceilings in the innovative trade space.
GDH: What is the desired end result of these pilot programs in the long run? Could these programs open the door to the manufacture of replacement parts in theater? How could that benefit readiness?
Eric Bartlow: We in the OC-ALC have a long history of adopting and implementing technologies to expedite the delivery of parts, end items, aircraft, and services to deliver war-winning capabilities to the warfighter.
Our partnerships, pilot programs, and technology adoption is just another chapter in a long history of providing war-winning capabilities.