American Air Force base 3D prints first certified aircraft parts

The 60th Maintenance Squadron at Travis Air Force base has become the first field unit of the American Air Force to 3D print certified nonstructural aircraft parts.

Located in California, the squadron is the first to be certified with a Stratasys industrial-grade 3D printer, the F900, that can produce parts up to 36 x 24 x 36 inches using ULTEM 9085 thermoplastic. The material which is flame-retardant is regarded as more flexible, dense, and stronger than typical plastics.

ULTEM 9085 material being loaded for use in the Stratasys F900.
ULTEM 9085 material being loaded for use in the Stratasys F900 (photo: Louis Briscese).

The Air Force has been experimenting with 3D printing since 2015, and the printer which took eight months to go fully operational offers new opportunities to create necessary parts while saving time and money.

The first approved project was a low-priority latrine cover for use on the C-5M Super Galaxy cargo plane, which was delivered on 12 August. Usually, replacement of the covers would take a year from the time they were ordered until delivery of the item. But with 3D printing, two covers were produced in 73 hours.

The first 3D printed aircraft parts from Stratasys F900 - latrine covers.
The first 3D printed aircraft parts from Stratasys F900 – latrine covers (photo: Louis Briscese).

Usually, parts that do not keep aircraft from performing their missions are deemed a low priority and are thus less likely to be high on the list for replacements. But with industrial-grade certified 3D printing to print on a production scale available now, the squadron sees many possibilities lying ahead for them.

As the only operational field unit currently, the squadron is already receiving numerous outside requests to help 3D print replacement parts quicker. Master Sgt. John Higgs, aircraft metals technology section chief, said, “We’re just scratching the surface. The overall goal is to generate products for every organization to support whatever needs they may have.”

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