Keeping Old Birds Flying with Composites


Owners of classic cars know that finding replacement parts for their vehicles is not necessarily easy. Often times they have to fabricate their own parts. It turns out the same is true for classic aircraft. But now, thanks to new innovations in composites, old birds can fly longer.

The U.S. Air Force is on the verge of having access to custom-made, 3D printed replacement parts for legacy aircraft thanks to a federal investment in composites additive manufacturing. The government has awarded $1 million to a Utah company to provide carbon fiber replacement parts under the Air Force Maturation of Advanced Manufacturing for Low-Cost Statement (MAMLS) program. If successful, the program could have far-reaching impacts well beyond keeping Air Force planes in the sky.

Improving Strategic Readiness

In terms of its initial application, the military’s carbon composite additive manufacturing plan is all about keeping legacy aircraft flying rather than purchasing new planes. There are plenty of planes still worthy of service despite their age, so investing in composite parts manufacturing makes a lot of sense financially.

Beyond finances is the concept of maintaining strategic readiness. According to one executive involved in the program, the project will “empower the sustainment community to adopt advanced additive manufacturing technologies, improving rapid part replacement/maintenance for legacy aircraft.”

In simple English, the ability to 3D print carbon fiber replacement parts on demand will improve strategic readiness giving aircraft technicians exactly what they need, when they need it, to keep planes flying. Technicians will not be waiting on a cumbersome supply chain and mountains of bureaucracy to get the parts necessary to complete maintenance and repairs. They will simply fire up the 3D printer and let it do its thing.

Beyond Military Applications

The importance of this project should not be underestimated in light of the historical link between military applications and eventual commercialization. So many pieces of technology we now take for granted only exist because they were originally necessary for military applications.

Take the internet, for example. What we now know as the World Wide Web got its start as a U.S. Department of Defense project known as ARPANET. The project gave us the internet protocol suite known as TCP/IP which went on to be the foundation of worldwide network connectivity.

What the military did for the internet in the 1960s and 70s they are now doing for composites. They are driving the advancement of composites manufacturing out of necessity, just as they did the development of computer networking. The results of current military necessity will eventually be adopted commercially, if history follows here.

Rock West Composites, another Utah company that specializes in carbon fiber and other composite materials, explains that 3D printing is the next big thing for their industry. Right now, the vast majority of composite parts are made with manual layup processes that are labor-intensive and time-consuming. The introduction of 3D printing will change that.

On-Demand Parts for Any Application

Once the Air Force and its contractors perfect the process of 3D printing aircraft parts, that process will move into the commercial arena. That is the point at which we will start seeing on-demand parts for nearly every application. The cost of manufacturing parts will come down as will the time necessary to make those parts. Then the market will explode.

Thanks to the military’s need for composite parts to keep legacy warbirds in the air, some very bright minds have been given the green light to advance 3D printing of composites. They are on the verge of something big, something that will ultimately impact all of us.

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