The U.S. Air Force will be holding an Advanced Manufacturing Olympics in 2020

With 3D printing playing a part in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, the U.S. Air Force has taken it one step further by organizing an entire Olympic event around the technology.

Hosted by the Air Force’s Rapid Sustainment Office (RSO), the Advanced Manufacturing Olympics Event invites different participants, from additive manufacturing companies and traditional defense contractors, to tech startups and universities, to compete in a number of design challenges. 

By holding the event, the Air Force seeks to test the capabilities of 3D printed components for use in demanding Air Force conditions, and expand the manufacturing sources of its supply chain. The inaugural Advanced Manufacturing Olympics takes place from July 7-10, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

An 88th Logistics Readiness Squadron technician marshals a Florida Air National Guard F-15 Eagle to its parking place at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Photo via U.S. Air Force/R.J. Oriez.
An 88th Logistics Readiness Squadron technician marshals a Florida Air National Guard F-15 Eagle to its parking place at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Photo via U.S. Air Force/R.J. Oriez.

3D printing spare parts in the Air Force

Aircraft components in the Air Force are continually in need of repair and replacement. Many aircraft spend a large number of years in service; the average age of an Air Force vehicle is 23 years old. Often, the case has been that part suppliers stop manufacturing legacy parts, or the companies stop doing business altogether before the aircraft itself is out of use. 

When seeking a spare part, the military is forced to source the parts from companies making those components from scratch. However, many of these military contracts are turned down due to their impracticality and inefficiency. Although fitting spare parts can be relatively simple, having them meet the required regulatory standards can often delay the process. 

Insufficient blueprints and documentation can mean that old legacy parts struggle to match the original standards. With a limited number of orders adding further fuel to the fire, manufacturing companies often prefer other jobs with more economic viability. This can cause a number of problems for the Air Force, which reportedly has 10,000 part requests go unfilled every quarter, despite its large budget for such jobs.

To solve its problem, a key route for the Air Force and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in general has been 3D printing. In doing so, the Air Force has saved time and cost keeping its fleets in the air. While previously spending $10,000 on military aircraft toilet seat covers, using 3D printing, the DoD has been able to reduce the expenditure to $300. 3D printing has also been used to replace a part in the landing gear door of an F-35 stealth fighter, saving a total of $70,000 in costs in the process. 

These advantages have led the Air Force into qualifying and investing in a number of 3D printers. Initiatives like AMNOW have also been launched to help the U.S. Army integrate 3D printing into its supply chains. 

The Ultimaker 5 at Royal Netherland Air Force's Woensdrecht Air Base. Image via Ultimaker.
The Ultimaker 5 at Royal Netherland Air Force’s Woensdrecht Air Base. Image via Ultimaker.

The Advanced Manufacturing Olympics

While having already applied 3D printing, a number of problems still persist for the Air Force when using the technology. It remains a difficult process to convert an old drawing into something 3D printable that matches the required standards expected of the part. Although Air Force scientists are exploring new metal 3D printing formulations, it also needs to prove the viability of 3D printing in aerospace beyond experimentation. 

The RSO has created the Advanced Manufacturing Olympics to help the Air Force rethink its methods for maintaining inventory. Participating teams will complete a number of exercises, like replicating parts that meet Air Force regulations using 3D printing, without access to the design specifications. They will also be required to demonstrate that their part meets the quality of its predecessor. Furthermore, contestants will take part in a “supply chain marathon” where they will have to work the logistics of delivering a 3D printed part to a specified location. 

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Featured image shows inside an aircraft. Photo via Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office.