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Air Force Unit First to Use 3D Printer to Create Aircraft Parts in the Field

The U.S. Air Force announced its first use of certified replacement aircraft parts made by a 3D industrial printer.

The 60th Maintenance Squadron at Travis AFB, Calif., is the Air Force's first field unit with an industrial-sized 3D printer certified to produce nonstructural aircraft parts.

The Stratasys F900 3D printer is capable of printing plastic parts up to 36-by-24-by-36 inches, using Ultem 9085, a flame-retardant high-performance thermoplastic regarded as more flexible, dense and stronger than typical plastic.

The printer, certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force Advanced Technology and Training Center, offers new opportunities to create needed parts while saving time and money.

The first approved project was completed on Aug. 12, a relatively low-priority latrine cover for use on the C-5M Super Galaxy cargo plane.

"The latrine covers we just printed usually take about a year from the time they've been ordered to the time they've been delivered," said MSgt. John Higgs, 60th Maintenance Squadron aircraft metals technology section chief said. "We printed two of the covers in 73 hours."

The Air Force has been experimenting with 3D printing since 2015, looking for ways of changing and improving methods of aircraft maintenance, and specifically in terms of speeding up that maintenance.

In January, a metallic part made in the 3D printer process was first installed on an F-22 Raptor fighter plane for the first time. The titanium cockpit part for the cockpit was installed by the 574th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, and replaced a conventional aluminum part.

The U.S. Marine Corps has been testing 3D printing capabilities since 2017, when it launched small 3D-printed drones at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

A Marine infantry battalion became the first unit to possess its own 3D printer printer, using it to test-print various pieces of equipment in the field in 2017, and in 2019, M1A1 Abrams tanks successfully performed with several 3D-printed impellers, a small part designed to expel dust from rank engines to keep the filters clean.

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