The future of Air Force logistics will find Airmen tapping into a secure digital network of archived additive manufacturing specifications, allowing for the 3D-printed creation of a weapons system component whenever and wherever needed.
This agile manufacturing approach is just one way Air Force Materiel Command is working to advance Air Force logistics, said Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, AFMC commander, at the 2017 Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference Sept. 18, 2017.
“Imagine having a global manufacturing network for an aircraft like the F-35,” the general said. “Instead of storing parts, predicting what parts will fail and stockpiling them, if I have digital data for the key components and additive manufacturing capabilities in key locations…I can make the part and reduce the timelines and costs associated with its delivery.”
Pawlikowski said additive manufacturing has already borne “tremendous success.” She cited the example of a C-5s load-bearing handle, a part that isn’t readily available, which normally costs $1,600 — once it can be acquired. In comparison, the Additive Manufacturing Innovation Center designed the part for 3D printing, and produced it for about $300 in less than three weeks. The Innovation Center is a partnership between AFMC’s Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and the University of Dayton Research Institute.
The command, through its Air Force Sustainment Center, will also establish Innovation Centers near each of its three air logistics complexes located at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Robins AFB, Ga., and Tinker AFB, Okla. These centers will invite industry, academia and defense partners to collaborate with ALC personnel to develop new technology insertion techniques.
“We are looking at the application of robotics in order to perform functions on fifth-generation aircraft that we cannot easily perform through manual labor today,” Pawlikowski said. “And we’re looking at new techniques to apply lasers to handle certain materials.”
AFMC is also aggressively examining agile software development within ALCs and alongside industry partners. Agile software development seeks to quickly field and update software in a cyber-secure way. Pawlikowski said adopting this approach may eventually translate into the establishment of software squadrons or flights within the Air Force’s maintenance squadrons.
“We have to re-examine how we approach the sustainment of our weapons systems and how we support them in the context of a network of apps and apertures,” the general said. “That means the software can’t be developed off in a corner. It must be involved in the actual operation of the weapons system.”
To be an agile, responsive workforce at a speed threatening to adversaries, Pawlikowski said AFMC is also working on a logistics command and control initiative. This worldwide network would enable the visibility of the supply chain in a decentralized way, allowing for logistics support ahead of operators’ needs.
“You can very much see that the types of things that need to be done to support our fifth-generation aircraft require our Airmen out on the flight line to have the depth of understanding associated with maintaining the software and all the specifics that will keep them flying,” she said. “It will be critical to have a command and control system that points to the right place, the right part and the right expertise to move it as quickly as we can.”