Air Force Turns To 3D Printing For Legacy Parts


Wired is reporting that next generation 3D manufacturing processes are coming to the rescue of warplanes designed with slide rules and blueprints. The aircraft that form the backbone of the Air Force’s strategic forces, the B-52s, B-1s and KC-135s, are approaching pension age in human years and have myriad knobs, pulls, cabinets and other ancillary equipment that wear out and must have certified replacements. Since most of the businesses that built items like the cockpit toilet in the B-1 (it’s behind the left seat) have long ago either closed or moved on to other things, when a cockpit toilet fails, the Air Force has a problem.

In fact, Wired says about 10,000 parts requests for the 50-plus-year-old bombers and tankers go unfulfilled every year and those that do get custom built cost a lot of money. The Air Force has paid $8,000 for a “latrine panel” for a C-5 but recently got one printed out for $300. It’s not clear if it’s found a 3D print replacement for the $10,000 toilet lid it recently installed on a C-17, one of the youngest members of the heavy aircraft fleet. “We’re gonna have to find better ways to keep old things flying,”  Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition technology and logistics said. The Air Force now has numerous contracts with 3D printing contractors to get everything from F-15 longerons to C-5 gasket handles. The Air Force is investigating new materials and methods to create the approved parts it needs.

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  1. About time. People scream, as they should, about $400 hammers, $1000 toilet seats / covers, etc but the parts themselves are no where near that cost. One has to calculate the cost of all the pieces of the procurement system that get involved. In the civil world, the cost of “engineering” and certification adds to the price tags. Every reader here knows that in aviation, one simply takes a $0.59 part and adds a zillion dollars to get the out the door cost.
    There are a myriad of parts on aircraft that have absolutely nothing to do with airworthiness, yet those parts have to have serial numbers, 8130 tags, etc, ad nauseum all of which unnecessarily drive up costs. If it holds the aircraft together, makes it airtight, or causes it to move then I am all for the system. But, let’s face it, an ash tray cover isn’t exactly important in the big scheme of things.

  2. This is profound…“We’re gonna have to find better ways to keep old things flying,” Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition technology and logistics said. Well, at least he finally admits the Air Force has a procurement problem.

    I too will suggest, as Raf has already done, Home Depot aisle 9, and maybe a call to Epic. They have recent experience of the cost and process of producing a composite airplane, including associated critical parts in the prevention of the aviation “potty dance”.

    Hmmmm…a Russian owned company making American military aircraft toilet seats. That should spawn another hit Bond movie. From Russia with love.

  3. 3-D printing technology is still evolving, but promises to revolutionize manufacturing. Gas turbine manufacturers like GE and Siemens are already making turbine blades for their machines faster, and at lower cost than conventional production processes. I have personally used my simple home printer to make some non-structural or non-avionics related parts for my plane. Unfortunately, for the Air Force, while the process may make the parts available, it is not likely to reduce their costs. The paper trail to get the replacements “certified” will eat up any savings.