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.