The Air Force is readying an announcement in the next week of a new Rapid Sustainment Office focused on taking advantage of 3-D printing and advanced manufacturing capabilities to reduce the cost of replacing parts for its aircraft.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told attendees at a Wednesday Washington Post event that 70 percent of the service’s costs go toward maintaining aircraft and the new office would work around slower supply chain processes.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson (Air Force photo)
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson (Air Force photo)

“We are announcing this week that we are starting a Rapid Sustainment Office to do more 3-D printing, robotics on the depot line. Another one is called cold spray, which is repairing of the metals rather than replacing them,” Wilson said. “It’s using advanced techniques to drive down the cost of parts.”

Wilson said the Air Force had about 10,000 requests for individual parts in the first quarter of this year, but did not receive a single bidder for any because many of the original manufacturers are out of business or companies don’t see a business case for a single part.

The Air Force secretary brought a 3-D printed trim wheel for the rudder trim of a KC-135 tanker with her during the event, and said the piece cost $50 for the engineering and production. “If I had to go out to industry and have them set up a traditional way to do it and buy one part, this is over 700 bucks.”

“If you don’t have it, you can’t fly. It’s a vital piece of equipment. The company that makes them is no longer in business. We reversed engineered this and 3-D printed it,” Wilson said.