Investment in 3D printing helps Team Edwards’ fleet aloft

Staff Sgt. Cameron Canupp and Steven Conway, both of 412th Maintenance Squadron, visually inspects a part manufactured in a 3D printer at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (Air Force photograph by Matthew Williams)

Three-D printers may still seem like a fad to most consumers, however the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., views the technology as a way forward that is only limited by imagination, ingenuity, and creativity of those who employ them.

The 412th Maintenance Squadron is leveraging 3D printing technology to help keep Edwards’ aircraft flying, no matter their age.

“As our airframes age and parts become more difficult to procure, the ability to cost-effectively reproduce those end item allows the units to maintain a higher mission capability rate with a lower cost,” said Steven Conway, 412th Maintenance Squadron. “Technology is rapidly outpacing our current manufacturing capabilities, for any manufacturing entity to remain competitive, they need to invest in the now, while looking to the future. Otherwise they will be left behind in a race that could potentially take decades to catch up in.”

Currently, the 412th Maintenance Squadron has one industrial plastic printer. Their operators have successfully used the printer for part production and for fitting difficult repairs prior to manufacturing. It also is used as a training aid to allow more operators to become proficient.

Staff Sgt. Cameron Canupp and Steven Conway, both of 412th Maintenance Squadron, pose for a photo in front of a 3D printer at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The 3D printer can be used to manufacture hard-to-find parts and helps cut down on time maintenance time and costs. (Air Force photograph by Matthew Williams)

A 3D printer works by taking a three-dimensional image or model, and printing the part one layer at a time, upward from the bottom-most layer. The layers are fused together by some sort of adhesive agent. The printer may take hours to finish a part, depending on the level of complexity and size. However, this innovative capability enables maintainers to create one-off modifications of aircraft parts at reduced costs in terms of both time and materials to aid in the advancement of Edward’s unique test and evaluation mission.

Manufacturing parts through a 3D printer can cut down on time and cost in comparison to ordering specialized parts, especially if there is no longer a viable supply chain available for a specific part. It also allows engineers to design and construct brand-new designs and are able to test them. This capability provides engineers the creativity to no longer be constrained to the typical methods of manufacturing, said Staff Sgt. Cameron Canupp, 412th Maintenance Squadron.

“Any organization or person in the Air Force could use 3D design and printing” Canupp said. “Any idea, from a new type of nozzle for fire trucks to firing mechanisms on a 70-year-old gun brought over from the museum. We are only limited by size and our imagination.”