Research aims to keep older aircraft flying

UDRI exploring ways 3-D printing can manufacture parts for old planes

To help deal with the nation’s aging airplane fleet, the University of Dayton Research Institute will partner with Youngstown State University to harness the power of additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing.

The universities will split a recently announced Air Force research award — amounting to $4 million for each university — to study how to use 3-D printing to reproduce older parts and tooling for those aircraft.

Most additive manufacturing for the Air Force is focused on creating lightweight, durable materials for planes of the future, said Brian Rice, a composites and polymers research engineer for UDRI.

This UDRI/Youngstown State research has a different focus.

“What elements of the research can be used for sustainment?” Rice said. “Because that’s where the bigger problem is right now — sustainment activity. We have aircraft that are over 50 years old.”

According to a January 2016 Air Force Times article, the average age of the Air Force fleet of aircraft is 27 years, with some planes as old as 53 years.

A good bit of the technology, tooling and even the skilled workers who produced components for the older aircraft are no longer with us, Rice said. Finding a “cost-effective way to keep flying” is the priority, he said.

“The Air Force probably didn’t expect the aircraft to last this long,” he said.

UDRI and Youngstown State are working with local sub-tier suppliers in the project. Rice said UDRI is working with GE Aviation, Bastech in Vandalia and Dayton Reliable Tool (DRT) in Butler County’s West Chester Twp.

Chuck Hansford, a senior account executive with DRT, said the project is a “unique opportunity.”

The entire process is developed around using additives as a manufacturing resource, Hansford said.

“What will the Air Force get out of it? They’ll get an understanding of the viability of 3-D printing as a manufacturing resource,” he said.

And DRT will establish a relationship with the Air Force.

“Our involvement is around making the component and providing them a service,” Hansford said. “But if you look at the long-term understanding of what we’re trying to develop … it is a very neat opportunity to show that you can manufacture quickly.”

Rice said the most immediate impact will be “productivity aids for the shop floor.” Custom fixtures and vise grips to hold particular parts for tooling work will be a “big focus,” he said.

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