by John Parker
Tinker Public Affairs
1/20/2016 - TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The
552nd Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight recently won engineering
approval to make and install the first 3-D printed part for E-3 Airborne
Warning and Control System aircraft.
The part -- a plastic end cap for seat armrests -- isn't crucial to
keeping the battle management platforms flying, but the manufacturing
feat is an early milestone on the Air Force's road to save money and
time using 3-D printing to repair and maintain aircraft.
Senior Master Sgt. Bradley Green, Fabrication Flight superintendent,
said Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex engineers determined that the
3-D printer's specialized plastic met requirements for fire and smoke
safety and they approved use of the part Dec. 18.
"The metals tech shop here is really leading the way in Air Force
innovation and developing a new way of doing things -- making it leaner,
faster, on demand," said Sergeant Green. "They're unlocking unlimited
repair potential. It's the way of the future."
The Fabrication Flight's job is to repair or make new parts to replace
worn-out or damaged components of E-3 Sentry planes and their related
ground equipment, such as power generators and hydraulic systems.
The Fabrication Flight received an advanced Fortus 400mc 3-D printer
last July. After initial training, the technicians immediately put it to
use. Maintainers reverse-engineered the armrest cap with calipers and
other measuring tools to print out a perfect copy.
Taking advantage of the 3-D printer's production-grade capabilities, the
flight has also developed a new way to make replacement air duct
brackets used inside the E-3's wings. The new method will save an
estimated $540,960 a year, said Staff Sgt. Ryan McBride, assistant
shopkeeper with the 552nd Maintenance Squadron's metals technology
The roughly U-shaped, 5-inch wide metal brackets were being made by
technicians manually cutting out the initial sheet metal shapes,
drilling individual holes and making bends in the sheet metal one at a
The Fabrication Flight, part of the 552nd Air Control Wing, revamped
that manufacturing process with another relatively new tool in the shop
-- a computerized water-jet cutter. High-pressure jets now cut the
initial flats and add the holes, eliminating human error.
To bend the flat parts into the correct shape, Sergeant McBride designed
and made two high-strength plastic form molds with the 3-D printer. A
high-pressure press brake forces the metal into a top and bottom mold to
create the precise bends.
"We were able to take an eight hour job that sheet metal was doing start
to finish and with our new technology we're down to an hour and 30
minutes per bracket," Sergeant McBride said. "We're saving weekends for
The innovation is also significant for maintenance because the
manufacturer of the '70s-era plane doesn't make the brackets anymore -- a
common problem with the Air Force's older models.
"We're actually making a part that had zero in stock, and we're
refilling the supply system worldwide because of the stuff that we've
just created with a 3-D printer and a water jet," the sergeant added.
Capt. Danielle Ackerman, 552nd MXS operations officer, said maintainers
were energized with innovative ideas soon after the 3-D printer was
"That's the best part of it for me," Captain Ackerman said. "It's not
just this one invention. It's the mindset that has spread through this
flight and it starts with someone like Sergeant McBride who got excited
about the 3-D printer and started playing with it."