The pathfinder program aims to tackle the Air Force’s sustainment issues by integrating metal additive manufacturing into its production workflows, providing a new method of sourcing out-of-production parts.
Phase III of the Pacer Edge program, which is ongoing, saw the partners 3D print four metal parts that are currently obsolete: a bellcrank, a cross-shaft arm, a gearbox seat, and an anti-icing valve body. Two of the parts, the bellcrank and cross-shaft arm, were 3D printed in cobalt-chrome on an M2 Series 5 system located at GE Additive‘s Cincinnati facility back in November 2021. The gearbox seat and anti-icing valve body have also now been 3D printed.
John Sneden, Director of Propulsion at the USAF, said, “Pacer Edge represents a monumental step forward in innovative partnership with industry. Through this program, our enterprise team will deliver safe and timely propulsion readiness in support of the United States warfighter.”
Combating obsolescence with Pacer Edge
The Air Force’s Rapid Sustainment Office (RSO) is responsible for ensuring mission readiness at all times. However, as more and more aircraft in the Air Force fleet enter their sixth decade of service and beyond, the sourcing and producing of spare parts with traditional manufacturing methods is becoming increasingly difficult.
An aircraft engine component is considered a ‘cold start’ if it takes more than 300 days to procure. According to GE, it’s estimated that the Air Force is faced with over 800 cold start parts every year.
To remedy the problem, GE and the Air Force conceived the Pacer Edge program, which aims to leverage 3D printing to source obsolete parts. The first priority of the program has been to create digital 3D technical data packages (TDPs) for four cold start parts that are hard to procure. These TDPs have now been used to 3D print the four parts.
Zack Miller, Chief, Advanced Manufacturing Program Office at the Air Force RSO, said, “The teaming of GE and the USAF legitimizes utilization of additive manufacturing to address critical needs of the aging aircraft that are currently unsupported within the existing supply chain.”
Next steps for Pacer Edge
Moving forward, GE and the Air Force plan to develop at least five TDPs over the next few years, each increasing in technical complexity. The final phase of Pacer Edge will see the establishment of a comprehensive metal 3D printing infrastructure for the Air Force. This will initially be implemented at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, helping to bypass the excessively long lead times currently experienced by the casting and forging sectors.
By equipping Tinker with its own additive manufacturing production chain, the project partners can ensure that any IP developed within the Pacer Edge program will be owned by the US Government. As a result, the Department of Defense will be able to 3D print Pacer Edge parts themselves without the help of GE in the future.
Beth Dittmer, Chief, Propulsion Integration Division at Tinker, added, “Pacer Edge is accelerating the USAF’s wide spread adoption of 3D metal printing to organically solve supply chain shortages and realizing its promise to improve warfighter support by drastically reducing lead times and creating additional sourcing options.”
The lead time problem in industry
As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, the Air Force isn’t the only organization plagued by long lead times for traditionally manufactured components. To address the issue in industry, President Joe Biden recently announced the AM Forward program. The initiative is designed to increase the wider adoption of 3D printing by SMEs to help secure supply chains across the US manufacturing sector. Initial participants include big-time industrial players like GE Aviation, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Siemens Energy.
“Public-private initiatives like the recently announced ‘AM Forward’ initiative will also help to address DoD’s sustainment and readiness challenges head on,” said Lauren Tubesing, director of operations, military programs at GE Additive. “Strengthening U.S. supply chains, by encouraging small and medium sized manufacturers across the United States to adopt metal additive technology, will create a nationwide network of a qualified additive manufacturing supplier.”
In the oil and gas sector, mining multinational ConocoPhillips recently revealed that it’s trialing 3D printing as a way of overcoming supply chain problems at its Kuparuk oilfield in Alaska. Specifically, the company is 3D printing performance-optimized versions of old obsolete parts such as the burner plugs found in gas turbines.
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Featured image shows a set of cross-shaft arms 3D printed in cobalt-chrome. Photo via GE Additive.