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Better Logistics, 3D Printing Will Quickly Return Navy and Marine Corps Aircraft To Service

Aviation Structural Mechanic 2nd Class Keelan Freedman, assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 25, performs maintenance on an MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopter in the hangar bay of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp. Wasp on Sept. 30, 2018. US Navy Photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Technological advances in production and distribution can strengthen the Navy and Marine Corps aviation parts supply chain the services’ aviation leaders said on Friday.

Improved spare parts logistics systems and 3D printing will increase flight availabilities and decrease costs, Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller, commander of Naval Air Forces, and Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, said at a joint appearance Friday at the Maritime Security Dialogue, sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I think you’ll see in the next year, if we’re back taking to y’all in the next year, you’ll see additive manufacturing (3D printing) be the kind of the headline of how far we’ve come with efficiencies, both at the FRCs (fleet readiness centers) and out in the field,” Rudder said.

The entire spare part logistics system has the potential be sped up with the use of 3D printing Rudder said. With forward deployed forces, he sees the addition of 3D printing as a way to increase availability and save costs by quickly producing small replacement parts onsite instead of waiting for the supply chain to send equipment far off.

However, Rudder also sees 3D printing as a way for the industry to quickly manufacture the parts needed by aircraft maintainers without necessarily having to sink money into new machinery to make specialized components not frequently requested.

Ultimately, this on-demand manufacturing will help companies control their costs. The only limiting factor, Rudder sees, is the ability for 3D printers to create air-worthy parts.

“We’re at the front end of this. There are parts that require airworthiness for approval and the non-air worthiness, the non-airworthiness are easier to do,” Rudder said. “You’re going to see additive manufacturing, both in industry and in our FRC’s. The Air Force is ahead of us on metal printing; you’re going to see that really take off. That’s just at the beginning of stages.”

When speaking of aviation funding and the need to control costs, the natural tendency is to focus on new acquisitions, Miller said to USNI News after his formal remarks. But the maintenance portion of an aircraft program is of equal importance in keeping costs down.

“We got to operate it, and sustain it, and fly it for the lifecycle,” Miller said of aircraft programs. “So understanding your supply chain and making sure it’s robust is key.”

A new logistics sustainment system Navy maintainers are trying will help both the service and industrial base adjust their ability to purchase and manufacture replacement parts, Miller said. The new system prioritizes how to allocate replacement parts to aircraft based on how quickly it will return to service after the part arrives.

Using a hypothetical scenario, Miller asked to consider the fate of two aircraft from different squadrons. Both are grounded, and each requires the same replacement part, but one of the aircraft needs additional other work done to get back in the air.

Under the current system, Miller said the part goes to the maintainers who request it first, even if this aircraft needs additional work resulting in being grounded for weeks. Meanwhile, the aircraft that only required the one part could’ve been ready sooner, but remains unavailable while waiting for part delivery.

“We’re now using supply optimization tools that are taking a look across a base, and not only a base but across a type, model series,” Miller said. “So I use (Naval Air Station) Lemoore and (Naval Air Station) Oceania as an example, a long lead-time part is coming in, so OK, what airplane benefits most from that? That’s one area where we’re using data analytics to help out making make what I’m calling data-driven decision making.”

  • Curtis Conway

    It’s a shame there is not a Boeing Logistical Support solution for US Navy Surface Combatants.

    • mca3

      There used to be – they were called AEGIS Logistics Support Teams and subsequently became Fleet Logistics Support Teams. They employed logistics specialists contracted for by Lockheed Martin. The legendary George Pizzi led the logistics specialists assigned to them for many years and I succeeded George in the late-1990s. I believe the Navy subsequently adopted the logistics specialists as their own. Don’t know what happened then – possibly they went the way of all budget cuts in the false sense of efficiency.

      • Secundius

        Reorganization to SUPSHIP in June 2003…

      • Curtis Conway

        Why is ‘false economy’ happening in the recent past, and so much these days ? . . lack of good leadership, no (or faulty) vision, and the absence of wisdom.

  • airider

    3D printing has its own logistical challenges. Raw materials still need to be stored somewhere to support faster turn around. Since 3D printing is basically a form of casting, you’ll need to use different materials to get similar performance to those created in a foundry that can support annealing, quenching and follow on forging and machining. Those materials also have their own properties that need to be qualified to ensure they are performance equivalents to those they replace. At a 20,000 foot level this may seem like a “win” since the logistics appears to move closer to the need, but care needs to be exercised that you didn’t just replace one set of challenges on the logistics side with another.

    • Marauder 2048

      Some of the startup costs for casting a custom design might be reduced by 3D printing the dies/molds and some of the follow-on tooling.

      • airider

        Agree … the real benefit would come if the part was 3D printed from the start. That’s when the advantages would be realized.

    • Secundius

      Three “D” Metal Printers (i.e. “Sintering”), can fit into a StanFLEX Module (9.8′ x 11′ x 8.2′). First one was installed aboard LHD-2, USS Essex after September 2012. After “Essex” encountered a Ships Steering Problem with No Way of Repairing the Problem. “Sintering” Units use “Powdered Metal” as a Medium and NOT “Spools” of Metal…

  • Leatherstocking

    It’s a shame no one of flag rank has ever built a part for an aircraft. Let’s talk about an air-worthy part. How do you know, for example, the shear strength or fatigue life of a part? You can’t test 100% of them to destruction. Did the sintering oven provide sufficient heat for sufficient duration throughout the part to assure strength? How do you know – and is it true for each part in a lot? Impurities in the powder? How do you know? The Navy has no quality standards or processes for 3D parts yet is going to use them for critical man-rated applications?
    Ben Franklin said it best: “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost, For the want of a shoe the horse was lost, For the want of a horse the rider was lost, For the want of a rider the battle was lost, For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost, And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.” 3D printing at this point in time is a defective horseshoe nail.

  • b2

    3D printing is just another technological advance that will benefit manufacturing but
    is years away fromthe refinement alluded to…
    The problem is the deferred maintenance (mainly extensions) of the pipeline of jets and helicopters) out of service awaiting depot. The government depots are full and contractor capacity is limited also because they are constantly truncated/closed down. plus there is only so much artisan talent out there…

    Deferred maintenance means the aircraft “corrode”, rot for those that understand fruit…..that means they need more hours to refit/refurbish and that means labor hours… That means schedule and $$. No amount of paperwork trickery (logistical improvements) is going to mitigate that much. Supply support and Depot Level Repair (DLR) capabilities and contract are what we need. Those capabilities have been pushed “just in time” for years and it shows. Remeber that repairing a DLR item requies artisanship just like anything else worth repairing today.

    Both these gents know they need to improve their pipelines and its going to take time/money, although the USMC seems particularly enamored with 3D printing (they dont run a syscom like the Navy…) Both are just trying to offer some edge mitigators, minor though they are…

  • MutantDog

    It is said, amateurs debate tactics, professionals observe logistics; on the third hand, USNI members may know enough to look at the accounting. To wit, how is a 3D part accounted for ? I’d guess the bureaucratic machine lags the physical. Call me a cynic.

  • mca3

    Will demand for part created by these 3D printers be captured? What will be the logistics chain for the printers themselves? Will every carrier go to sea with one or more? Technology changes but logistics challenges really do not change and I am very skeptical that idea will “solve” any problems. Even in my pre-USN retirement days of the mid-1990s, we knew of ships operating on secondary and tertiary levels of redundancy of system rather than spending money to bring them FMC. The first casualty of sequestration were the supply and maintenance chains. Next came end strength , numbers of ships, and loss of specialization as ratings were glopped together into generalists. Logistics is more than spare parts. 3D printers won’t solve that.