Home to the largest air mobility wing in the U.S. Air Force, the Travis Air Force Base in California is using 3D printing to develop a cost-effective solution for replaceable handles on military-grade thermoses.
A thermos, commonly referred to as a “hot cup” in the Air Force, allows aircrew members to securely transport and heat liquids on an aircraft. Due to the demanding nature of Air Force missions, the hot cup is frequently dropped resulting in a broken plastic handle.
This leads to thousands of dollars in replacement costs in new hot cups as replacement handles are not available.
“The hot cup problem was shared with us because the price keeps increasing. Our office was asked to see if we could produce a 3D designed handle that is stronger than the current one,” Capt. Ryan McGuire, 60th Air Mobility Wing Phoenix Spark Office Chief.
The Phoenix Spark Program
Over the past three years, the 60th Aerial Port Squadron (APS) has spent an estimated $56,000 on replacement hot cups. This year, the price of each cup has increased from $693 to $1,220, which prompted the APS to seek cheaper solutions for the hot cup handle dilemma.
Launched in 2017, the Phoenix Spark program, which is leading the 3D printed hot cup handle project, aims to use new technologies as tools for overcoming the challenges of rapid innovation within the military.
Capt. McGuire and his team of innovators were first introduced to the hot cup problem by 1st Lt. Dennis Abramov, 60th Airport Passenger Services Operations Flight Commander.
“The cup has two plastic pieces, one on top that helps lift the lid and one on the side,” said Abramov.
“The side handle allows someone to hold the cup without burning their hand. Unfortunately, we can’t order replacement parts when the handle breaks, which requires us to purchase a whole new hot cup every time one breaks.”
Upon learning that the Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, was redesigning a handle with 3D printing for this particular problem, Lt. Abramov, and Capt. McGuire adopted the same technology.
Getting a handle on 3D printing
With the help of Nicholas Wright, a volunteer 3D designer and printer, the first 3D printed prototype handle for the hot cup was made.
“The process took us about a week to develop a solution for the hot cup handle from learning the software to figuring how to physically print it,” said Wright.
“We talked to aircrew members about how they’d like it designed. They recommended a more ergonomic design. The reason for this is because the original handle is placed upside down so aircrews wanted a mix between comfort and strength. We achieved that in about seven days.”
Using 3D printing, the new handle was created with greater strength from stacked multi-directional layers. It takes a curved shape which is designed to reduce the chances of the handle splitting upon drop impact – a problem that occurred with the original square-bottom handle.
According to Wright, the APS can save thousands with the new curved hot cup handle.
“Imagine you have to replace 40 hot cups each year at ever-increasing prices,” said Wright. “It’s much cheaper for us to replace the handle on 40 cups at about 50 cents per handle rather than purchasing 40 cups for more than $1,200 per cup.”
The U.S. Air Force invests in additive manufacturing
Recently, the U.S. Air Force initiated a research project that explored the applications of the 3D printed ceramic, silicon oxycarbide (SiOC), within hypersonic flight vehicles.
Prior to this, the U.S. Air Force along with Renaissance Services, Inc, experts in 3D printing ceramic tooling for aerospace-grade parts, entered in a $2.9 million contract to integrate 3D printing in its legacy aircraft maintenance program.
Members of the Phoenix Spark Program are currently working on a playbook detailing the process of 3D printing the hot cup handle which will promote its approval on an Air Force aircraft.
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Featured image shows the hot cup with the original plastic handle. Photo via U.S. Air Force/Courtesy of Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman.