AFRL, partners reclaim obsolete aircraft parts using advanced manufacturing technology

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Solomon Duning, Research Engineer from The University of Dayton Research Institute, uses laser scanning technology to inspect an F-16 vertical tail on a depot fixture. (Courtesy photograph)

The average age of Air Force aircraft is over 28 years according to Assessment of Military Power, 2018. This creates a constant requirement for components needing repair or replacement. Parts can be difficult to acquire when original suppliers are no longer in existence and new suppliers have no desire to produce low volume quantities.

The challenge for the Air Force is to obtain parts quickly and affordably through existing Department of Defense supply chains, or through repair/fabrication at sustainment centers.

According to Air Force magazine, in the first quarter of 2017 alone, the Air Force had 10,000 requests for parts that received no bidder because the original manufacturer was out of business or it was not feasible for the company to produce needed parts.

The Maturation of Advanced Manufacturing for Low Cost Sustainment program was created to utilize advanced technologies to address the current challenges of keeping aging aircraft flying safely.

MAMLS is a public-private partnership led by the Air Force Research Laboratory to accelerate advanced manufacturing and digital technologies for improved efficiency of DOD sustainment operations.

MAMLS is executed through the America Makes National Manufacturing Institute and its members. Over 45 projects have been initiated through MAMLS to improve sustainment operations using a wide variety of technologies and teams.

A MAMLS team from the University of Dayton Research Institute and Bill Macy Consulting partnered with Ogden Air Logistics Complex personnel at Hill Air Force Base, Utah to reassemble an F-16 tail that had been shot full of holes and then disassembled. The tail could not be reconstructed due to the lack of needed tooling and technical data.

Solomon Duning of UDRI explained, “The problem was that flight-critical features of the F-16 tail could not be manufactured within the technical specifications without an accurate reference. Reassembly with traditional methodologies would have been near-impossible; however, advanced digital methods provide new approaches to critical tasks such as these.”

A variety of reverse engineering technologies (laser scanning, faro arm, and photogrammetry) were used to develop a digital model of the tail. This model was then used to establish optimized lug drilling and milling locations to bring the tail together for final reassembly.

By using the digital model to configure the parts required to reassemble the wing, this effort was able to reclaim an Air Force asset worth an estimated $600,000 – $1 million depending on current costs.

Bill Macy from Macy Consulting indicated that “The project was able to demonstrate how digital data can be utilized to minimize the need for complex tooling and provide new repair options. As a result, lead times, costs and quality can all be effectively managed to provide enhanced repair solutions that support fleet readiness.”

Once the MAMLS program created the digital model, Ogden Air Logistics Complex used internal funds to contract Bill Macy Consulting to assist with the completion of the drilling and milling process to finish the job and return the F-16 tail to Air Force inventory with a huge return on investment.

“Through the MAMLS program, technologists were able to work directly with government personnel to demonstrate and train them on new digital technologies to innovate a process for reassembly of the tail. The America Makes public-private partnership was instrumental in enabling the success of the project as well as the solid support from Ogden Air Logistics Complex,” said Marvin Gale, MAMLS Program Manager.