The US Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Metal Technology Office has pioneered a safe, agile and cost-efficient way to replace aircraft parts, drawing on the expertise of additive manufacturing technical experts working with deployed Air Force units.
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The MTO, comprising a group of technical experts, works directly with field units who perform repairs to develop solutions using metals technology, or MT, and additive manufacturing technology, ensuring the units have what they need to be successful.
There are approximately 190 MT shops located across all major commands, and each shop is equipped with modern manufacturing equipment set up to augment supply system gaps.
Che Dacalio, an MTO engineering technician, explained, “We are the subject matter experts for the metals technology career field, which involves additive manufacturing, machining, welding, heat-treating, parts repair and fabrication. We do site visits throughout the United States visiting MT shops, assessing their work, capabilities, equipment and providing training as needed.”
When a flight-critical spinner backing plate from a US Air Force Academy T-51 Mustang trainer aircraft cracked, there wasn’t a replacement available since the part was obsolete. As with many supply challenges, production-level drawings did not exist.
Thus, any future part produced for the Mustang required Federal Aviation Administration co-ordination and approval prior to flight authorisation.
Dacalio added, “We are trying to help our [system program offices] recognise the organic manufacturing potential that has long been established within the Air Force. MT shops offer rapid response manufacturing and repair solutions for unique AF part production and stock exhaustion problems. We seek to maximise MT shop utilisation to sustain continuous Air Force flight and improve mission generation by supplying parts on-demand, anytime, from almost any Air Force installation and at a fraction of the costs when compared to similar contracted efforts.”
The office worked with the USAFA T-51 chief engineer and the Advanced Technology and Training Center of Middle Georgia to reverse-engineer, produce a 3D model of the original part and create FAA-approved manufacturing drawings.
Dacalio then co-ordinated with the MT shop in Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, to locally manufacture 15 new spinner backing plates within six-and-a-half weeks. The spinner backing plate was eventually installed on the T-51.
The MTO team also supports mission-critical parts within the Air Force armaments sustainment, support equipment and vehicle divisions, as well as tooling, fixtures and non-critical weapon system components and parts.
Master Sergeant Joshua Bemis, MTO superintendent, added, “We support the unique capability, unmatched by any other field or intermediate-maintenance-level base entity that metals tech can provide. We are steering the future of manufacturing methods in maintenance through the implementation of technologies, such as additive manufacturing (3D printing), while not losing focus on the benefits and requirements for legacy machinery, such as mills and lathes.”