The world of 3D printing is an opening to a future which until recently seemed imaginary for the IAF. Will technicians be able to create parts from scratch and install them on aircraft in minutes? The answers are all in the new printer

David Greenwald | Photography: Aerial Maintenance Unit | Translation: Ohad Zeltzer Zubida & Ofri Aharon

The next revolution in the field of print has already begun and it’s called “Additive Manufacturing technology” also known as 3D Printing.

This technology produces objects from different materials by melting material according to the computers guidance, layer after layer on a surface, until the product is complete. This process allows its users to override production limitations and create models, spare parts and molds with creative freedom and at a low costs.
The IAF received its first 3D printer six months ago for the AMU (Aerial Maintenance Unit) that has begun producing aircraft objects using the printer. Is the face of the IAF maintenance division about to change?


The Print Revolution

Changing Production Lines
The IAF has to purchase spare parts for its aircraft, however sometimes faces a known problem: the manufacturers that the aircraft were purchased from decades ago, have stopped producing them years ago and the production lines for these parts have been discontinued.

Just like a puzzle that can’t be complete with a missing piece, without all of its parts, an aircraft can’t take-off and thus the IAF has found a solution to the problem: 3D printers allow production of a part from “scratch”, without needing to establish a special production line for the missing piece.

“The IAF has a considerably small amount of the same kind of aircraft, thus the AMU doesn’t produce big amounts of spare parts because they aren’t necessary, but go directly to the manufacturer. The 3D technology brings a ’boutique’ solution, to produce a single part after long-term planning and sending instructions to the printer”, shares Lt. Col. Surin Ardatz, Commander of the material department in the AMU. “As a unit that doesn’t produce hundreds or thousands of parts, the printer spares us the need of opening production lines because a production line is dedicated to one part while the printer is universal and can print different pieces. We know this technology will eventually lower costs of opening new production lines for the IAF and will save a great amount of money”.


The Print Revolution

High quality and inexpensive
The printer in the AMU produces material made of high quality polymer that can already be found in hundreds of airborne items in civilian and military aviation around the world. The printer’s expertise is printing objects with complex geometry that are divided into three: airborne items to be assembled directly on aircraft after printing, tools for production such as stencils for painting or reference models to ensure sizes before producing metal and prototype models on which experiments are conducted after producing the final product.

In the field of airborne materials, the AMU’s personnel have produced dozens of parts that are not considered critical for the safety of an aircraft such as covers for the aircraft systems. In the coming months the unit will produce hundreds of additional parts such as merge channels and work tools.

Although the printer costs about $400,000, it symbolizes cost efficiency: other than the great advantage of not opening a production line, the price of manufacturing a piece using the printer is a tenth of the price the IAF would pay using the previous technology.

Other than the financial saving, the printer works using instructions received from the engineer, which also saves many hours of man power during the planning of the product, preparation of the product and developing it.
“In the past, we needed good hands, now we mostly need a developed brain”, shares Col. Gadi, commander of the AMU. “We are substituting good engravers with engineers who produce good content and put in in the printer. Another advantage is the shortening of time it takes, if we once needed to program the computer a week in advance to prepare it for manufacturing, now we can skip this step: the item arrives directly from the engineers table to the printer”.

Besides saving work hours, the parts’ availability has also improved. Having manufacturing abilities in house, saves the need to correspond with an external manufacturer and allows the unit to manufacture parts in much shorter periods of time. “The printer gives us independence in maintenance. We aren’t dependent on a third party and manufacturers that are not here”, said Maj. Dimitry Fishman, Head of the Material and Process Engineering Division in the AMU. “If a technician will find a damaged part on an aircraft and want to replace it, he will be able to walk up to his computer, tap in some print commands and the new piece will be waiting for him a few hours later. So, we shorten times and don’t need to keep spare parts inventory”.


The Print Revolution

“The geometric reasoning has changed”
While the world of plastic printing is still developing, the AMU is already looking forward to the next generation: the world of metal printing. Even though aviation plastic the unit uses is considered a quality material, metal can withstand extreme heat, vibrations and winds and is the critical items for the planes safety. “We need to base our knowledge in plastic printing in the next year or two and understand the advantages and disadvantages of metal printing”, shares Lt. Col. Gadi. “If we will be able to prove to ourselves that we manage to produce similar qualities with former manufacturing methods, we can break forward and replace a large part of our production infrastructure with metal”.

Already now, the AMU personnel is working on printing the first metal item in cooperation with experts from the industry and academia: a beam for a Blackhawk helicopter, an item with complex geometry that they weren’t able to produce in previous technologies.

“We wanted to create a building model for this specific item, but it broke every time we tried to bend it in the former production method. After understanding that we cannot ask the U.S manufacturer for one item, we built a model for printing and sent it to the Israel Institute of Technology” shares Lt. Uri Buzaglo, a material engineer in the unit. “It is a very complex process and there is a long way until the item can be mounted on the helicopter and fly. We have to execute flight experiments, material fatigue experiments and many loading experiments. After all of these, it is expected to be the first metal printed item to fly in the IAF. It will be a breakthrough in the field”.

The Future will be Printed
This year, the maiden flight of the helicopter beam is expected to be carried out and following its landing, the AMU is preparing to take off into a new world. The unit can print every part of an aircraft’s build from metal – from the panels, through the beams and to the engines and wings. Until then, the unit is planning to research the complex field and bring a new generation, experts in material printing, who will be able to take the unit into the future. “There will be a group of ‘hi-tech’ soldiers here who will grow into this world and learn it from the beginning”, shares Lt. Col. Gadi. “They will be a different kind of soldiers, ones who know how to work with sketches and perform quality control”.