Industrial 3D printer manufacturer Essentium has been awarded a four-year contract by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) to drive the development and deployment of advanced additive manufacturing (AM) solutions for applications in tooling, ground support, maintenance repair, and overhaul of an aging fleet, and flight-certified parts for military aircraft and ground vehicles. The project, titled “Advanced Additive Manufacturing for the Airman,” is part of an over $550 million Strategic Financing (STRATFi) initiative by the new USAF collaborative organization AFVentures, created to identify and advance “big bet” technologies that have the potential to protect and promote the future dominance of the USAF.
The multi-year collaborative contract has the potential to save both the USAF and the National Guard Bureau (NGB) millions of dollars by ramping AM production and developing certified materials that will produce consistent quality AM parts at unparalleled speed and costs. The Essentium-USAF project team will test and develop new materials and processes using Essentium’s High-Speed Extrusion (HSE) 3D printing platform, to protect and advance the USAF’s competitive and strategic capabilities.
With print speeds useful for both rapid part production and decreasing the time required to certify new materials for use in flight, Essentium’s HSE system was selected to innovatively address challenges in production, supply chain, and procurement. The Texas-based 3D printer provider was chosen along with 20 other companies ahead of the March 12, 2020, AFVentures launching event. At the time, Assistant Secretary of the USAF for Acquisition Will Roper announced the creation of AFVentures to serve as an “umbrella organization for the USAF’s efforts to work with small businesses to fund critical technologies for the warfighter.”
According to a USAF report, these 21 “big bet” companies are slated to receive four-year, fixed-price contracts worth a combined $550+ million through AFVentures’ STRATFi. This amount includes more than $100 million in Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funds, over $100 million in USAF funding, and $350 million in private investment, with a big chance these funding rounds will only get bigger in the next years. Speaking from Washington, D.C., Roper highlighted that the U.S. needs to invest in small businesses to expand its industrial base and maintain its edge over global competitors and adversaries due to their critical source of disruptive technology in today’s world. Also, he said small-business investment is key to widening the nation’s industrial base and maintaining its competitive edge.
As for Essentium’s project, Nathan Parker, Deputy Program Executive Officer for the U.S. Air Force’s Rapid Sustainment Office, suggested that “developing safety-critical airplane parts is closer than ever before due to cutting edge technology like Essentium’s additive manufacturing solution. Essentium demonstrated it has the expertise and capabilities to create parts with consistent replication using the Essentium HSE 3D Printing Platform. We will work together to drive additive manufacturing technology forward; for faster aircraft repairs that massively reduce time to deliver parts to keep our warfighters ready.”
The new contract will also help the NGB advance its ability to speed the production of parts for aging fleets of air and ground vehicles. Essentium suggested that the USAF is under constant pressure to accelerate aircraft repairs, reduce costs, and get aircraft back in the air quickly. Although it is the youngest of the U.S. military’s four branches – having been born out of the Army Signal Corps to become its own service in 1947 – the Air Force did not expand in numbers during the post-9/11 buildup. Instead, it grew smaller as acquisitions of new aircraft failed to offset programmed retirements of older aircraft.
Extended use of many aircraft leads to increased maintenance and repair costs because of structural cracking and corrosion problems. Many of the Air Force’s more than 5,300 active duty aircraft are aging, and while replacement parts are scarce, it is also challenging to find manufacturers willing to resume the production of parts that may not be reordered for many years. Parts ordered one or two at a time are extremely expensive and entail exceptionally long waits, often forcing the USAF to cannibalize parts from the “aircraft boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, described Essentium. Moreover, replacing huge numbers of aging aircraft with newer models could become very expensive, up to $26 billion annually by the mid-2030s. Implementing technologies, like 3D printing, can extend the lives and reduce the costs of operating and maintaining these aging aircraft systems.
Supplementing the capabilities of the hardware, Essentium engineers will use their expertise in materials science to offer drop-in replacements for military specification (MIL-spec) materials such as phenolics – a commonly used resin-based composite suitable for panels and armor of military vehicles and craft. The team claims it will aim to certify four times the number of materials in dramatically less time and cost compared with incumbent solutions currently available to the USAF.
“The sky is the limit for the potential benefits of additive manufacturing for the U.S. Air Force. As well as reducing operating costs by tens of millions, the strategic capability we will work with our STRATFi partners to deliver through this program will help bring about an end to the scenario of days of aircraft sitting on the tarmac awaiting simple replacement parts which may be 3D printed and can get them flying again,” suggested Elisa Teipel, Chief Development Officer and Co-founder of Essentium. “We are beyond thrilled to be awarded this contract and work with our government customers to help drive significant advancement in military parts manufacturing and advance the U.S. Air Force’s military leadership.”
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