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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.”