Editor’s Note: The Boeing E-3 Sentry, better known as AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System), has been our nation’s “eye in the sky” for decades. Built on the venerable 707 platform, the Sentry has been received numerous upgrades over the years and continues to provide critical battlefield command and control, as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability.

The 552nd Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight recently won engineering approval to make and install the first 3-D printed part for E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft.

The part — a plastic end cap for seat armrests — isn’t crucial to keeping the battle management platforms flying, but the manufacturing feat is an early milestone on the Air Force’s road to save money and time using 3-D printing to repair and maintain aircraft.

Senior Master Sgt. Bradley Green, Fabrication Flight superintendent, said Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex engineers determined that the 3-D printer’s specialized plastic met requirements for fire and smoke safety and they approved use of the part Dec. 18.

A Boeing E-3C Sentry AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) flies during an exercise at Nellis AFB, NV.
A Boeing E-3C Sentry AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) flies during an exercise at Nellis AFB, NV.

“The metals tech shop here is really leading the way in Air Force innovation and developing a new way of doing things — making it leaner, faster, on demand,” said Sergeant Green. “They’re unlocking unlimited repair potential. It’s the way of the future.”

The Fabrication Flight’s job is to repair or make new parts to replace worn-out or damaged components of E-3 Sentry planes and their related ground equipment, such as power generators and hydraulic systems.

The Fabrication Flight received an advanced Fortus 400mc 3-D printer last July. After initial training, the technicians immediately put it to use. Maintainers reverse-engineered the armrest cap with calipers and other measuring tools to print out a perfect copy.

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Taking advantage of the 3-D printer’s production-grade capabilities, the flight has also developed a new way to make replacement air duct brackets used inside the E-3’s wings. The new method will save an estimated $540,960 a year, said Staff Sgt. Ryan McBride, assistant shopkeeper with the 552nd Maintenance Squadron’s metals technology section.

The roughly U-shaped, 5-inch wide metal brackets were being made by technicians manually cutting out the initial sheet metal shapes, drilling individual holes and making bends in the sheet metal one at a time.

The Fabrication Flight, part of the 552nd Air Control Wing, revamped that manufacturing process with another relatively new tool in the shop — a computerized water-jet cutter. High-pressure jets now cut the initial flats and add the holes, eliminating human error.

To bend the flat parts into the correct shape, Sergeant McBride designed and made two high-strength plastic form molds with the 3-D printer. A high-pressure press brake forces the metal into a top and bottom mold to create the precise bends.

“We were able to take an eight hour job that sheet metal was doing start to finish and with our new technology we’re down to an hour and 30 minutes per bracket,” Sergeant McBride said. “We’re saving weekends for some people.”

The original article can be viewed here.

(Featured Photo: An E-3 Sentry approaches a KC-10A Extender from McGuire Air Force Base for aerial refueling on June 29, 2000. (U.S. Air Force photo by Gary Ell)