The Future of Printing

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Victoria Nelson
  • 157th Air Refueling Wing

The soft hum of electric motors fills the air at the back of the 157th Air Refueling Wing’s metal technologies shop as the heated nozzle of their new 3D printer zig-zags back and forth, drizzling layer after layer of extruded plastic; a custom-designed aircraft maintenance tool begins to take shape out of thin air.

Staff Sgt. John Woodward, a 157th Maintenance Group metals technician, gained 3D printing experience in his civilian career as a metals tech. When he began a temporary tour at the base, he leveraged that skill to bring the machine to life.

He began creating digital prototypes of tools that met the unique needs at the wing. He would use the 3D printer to fabricate inexpensive prototypes of those models to test, before the metals team crafted them out of more durable, traditional materials.

“We can make shapes or features that you can’t make with traditional milling machines or drill presses,” Woodward said. “[3D printing] allows us to turn something we made out of plastic into a piece of aluminum with a long life expectancy they can use as an actual tool.”

In addition to designing and creating their own tools, the team has been collaborating with others on base to identify other opportunities where they can leverage their printer capabilities.

The printer can also be used to create models of parts for other traditional machinery, improving accuracy and cutting the cost of trial and error with more expensive materials.

“It allows you to move from that prototype to something more tangible, something that you can repeat,” he added, twisting a bright blue plastic tool head from its newly printed handle.

Senior Master Sgt. Donald Colcord, noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the metals technology shop, said the machine gives Airmen more ways to approach and solve problems.

“The 3D printer changes the way we use our assets and are able to help and support others on base,” Colcord said, motioning to an array of colorful plastic tools organized along the back wall.

Woodward’s newest project came from the need to protect expensive exterior skin panels on the KC-46. He created plastic pry bars of his own design to remove the panels from the aircraft without any damage.

Woodward explained that some of the aircraft panels can cost upwards of $80,000, while the plastic pieces cost about $2.

“In this little sphere here at Pease, we can make a difference,” said Woodward. “We are making an impact.”

The printer is part of a broader innovation effort within the Air Force, focused on continuous improvement and saving money.

“What better way to show what the Air Force can do, than to design something that no one has seen or thought of yet?” Woodward asked while the printer nozzle ran back and forth across its carriage tracks in the corner of the metal shop.

Woodward also added that the metals team enjoys having the freedom to invent and serve at the tip of the spear for technological advancement.

“We have smart people that are willing to invest the time and energy to learn,” he said. “We have the power to create something simple that is effective and show what our shop is really capable of.”

For Woodward and other guardsmen on the metals team, the most inspiring part of the process is inventing beyond the capabilities of traditional machinery.

“The only limiting factor is what you can come up with,” said Woodward. “With the KC-46, it’s a great time to be thinking outside the box and creating new tools that support the new aircraft.”