Heating liquids aboard an aircraft requires a special kind of cup that is extremely pricey. In 2016, the 60th Aerial Port Squadron at Travis Air Force Base in California purchased 10 of the cups for a shocking total of $9,630. In 2018, the price of one hot cup went up to $1,220, resulting in a charge of $32,000 for 25 cups. You would think that, for such high cost, these cups better be virtually indestructible, but they’re not – when dropped, the handles break off easily. So rather than spending thousands of dollars on replacements every time a cup is dropped, the squadron decided to look into improving the handle so it wouldn’t break so often.
Phoenix Spark is an Air Force innovation program that is currently working on 50 projects, including the resdesign of the hot cups.
“We started working the hot cup issue in late April,” said Capt. Ryan McGuire, 60th Air Mobility Wing Phoenix Spark chief and a KC-10 Extender pilot with the 9th Air Refueling Squadron. “We have weekly meetings every Friday at noon and our meetings are open forums where Airmen can present problems and potential solutions. 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.”
1st Lt. Dennis Abramov, 60th APS passenger operations flight commander, brought the hot cup issue to the Phoenix Spark team.
The goal was to create a 3D printed handle that was stronger than the one that came with the hot cup. Nicholas Wright, a 3D designer and printer who works with the Phoenix Spark team, worked on designing a new prototype.
“The cup has two plastic pieces, one on top that helps lift the lid and one on the side,” he said. “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. After cross talk with our fellow port squadrons across Air Mobility Command, we learned Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, was working on developing a redesigned handle. They were considering the 3D printing option. That’s when we brought the issue to Phoenix Spark at Travis to see if we could find a solution.”
“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 air crew 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.”
The new handle is curved, making it stronger.
“The handle currently on the hot cup has a square bottom which creates a weak point on the handle so any time it is dropped, the handle splits shortly after impact,” Wright said. “Our new rounded handle reduces that weak point. The handle we designed is stronger and capable of being printed at most Air Force bases.”
3D printing’s layer-by-layer fabrication is part of what makes the new handle so strong, said Wright.
“Think of a tree that has multiple layers so it’s extremely strong in multiple directions,” he said. “The new handle has stacked layers with a solid piece around it so it’s similar to the layers of a tree.”
Over the last three years, the squadron has spent nearly $56,000 to replace broken hot cups, an incredible number that could be greatly reduced by the new design.
“Imagine you have to replace 40 hot cups each year at ever-increasing prices,” Wright said. “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 team shared the prototype for the new handle with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. The center is responsible for total life cycle management of Air Force weapon systems – and cups, as it turns out.
“They are working through all the processes, quality standards and materials to try and put out a playbook on how we can 3D print the handle so it’s approved to be on an Air Force aircraft,” said McGuire. “Once we get that guidance, we can print the handles at Travis.”
A cup may seem like an insignificant thing in comparison to everything else the Air Force has to focus on, but it’s certainly not insignificant monetarily, and fixing the handle frees up time and capital for more critical things.
“I’m here to help,” said Wright. “By being here, I’m supporting a cause I believe in, helping the Air Force save money and man hours. That’s important because if you save money and man hours, you can put those things toward other resources such as research and development, training and readiness.”
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