The field of 3D printing heralds a future for the IAF which seemed like fiction until recently. Slowly but surely, it is becoming more and more realistic – what will a technological world without human involvement look like? Will any technician be able to manufacture parts and use them in an aircraft? And how is the "Adir" related to all this?
The IAF has hundreds of aircraft at its disposal. Some were integrated just several years ago, some underwent changes which made them seem brand new, and some are dozens of years old. The AMU (Aerial Maintenance Unit) is responsible for maintenance of the IAF's aircraft – its personnel "renovate" the aircraft, stripping them of all their parts, replacing them and returning them to their squadrons.
Often, the unit's service members are required to find various replacement parts and purchase them in order to utilize them in the aircraft on which they perform their maintenance work. There has been a significant development in the field over the years when the unit began creating the necessary parts, sometimes even printing them for themselves.
"Being exposed to advanced technology makes us want to integrate it into the unit. We want to be at the front, technologically, while also being connected to the unit's requirements", elaborated Lt. Col. Dr. Ofer Levy, Head of the AMU's Material Department. "There are several ways to utilize advanced technology in aviation, especially in a small military which can't afford throwing away aerial components. The technology slowly being established in the unit allows us to restore certain items and reuse them. In addition, it allows us to manufacture parts for ourselves according to necessities in the field".
A New Technology
3D printing became widespread several years ago. Videos on the web showed models of cars, houses and even weapons made from a powder being melted by a laser beam, which constructs the printed object layer by layer. Shortly afterwards, militaries around the world – including the Israeli Air Force – began using the same technology, printing munitions, tools and even replacement parts for aircraft.
"Whenever we integrate new technology, we try to understand it first: we examine its advantages and disadvantages as well as the components we can manufacture using the technology. In addition, we perform a series of examinations which ensures that the product is capable of withstanding actual flight conditions", said Lt. Col. Ofer. "Technology can sometimes be unstable and the final result may include defects such as hollow areas within the produced material. If the material isn't examined, using it in flight might be risky".
Aviation is one of the most sensitive fields in which 3D printing is used, a result of the dangers involved in using 3D-printed objects in manned aircraft. This is why every 3D-printed object undergoes a long series of meticulous examinations testing its durability in heat, cold, dust and under physical pressure.
"Printing technology allows us to build complex geometric shapes which conventional modes of production would have a harder time building. Seeing as printing is done in layers, the complex geometric shapes can be created layer-by-layer and there's even the capability of building objects within objects".
In the Air
Complementary to 3D printing is 3D scanning. While developing their printing capabilities, the AMU is also developing its scanning capabilities. These will enable the unit to scan an object and turn it into a computerized model, thus making the entire printing process independent of human performance. The scanner is also used after printing, in order to compare the computerized model and its printed version – in case of possible discrepancies, they will be detected and fixed with relative ease.
"Technology allows for automatic manufacturing processes which depend less and less on human involvement", elaborated Lt. Col. Ofer. "Looking far into the future, there may actually be no need for humans and warehouses in the process, but only powder, a computer and a 3D printer".
"We are due to be the first ones in Israel to pilot 3D-printed objects", described Lt. Col. Ofer. "In the coming week, we are due to fly 3D-printed objects installed in the 'Yas'ur' (CH-53) helicopter for the first time. The rest of the process involves a mutual project with other units in the military – purchasing a metal 3D printer, which will allow us to produce objects both for testing and military use".
In the future, the AMU is expected to integrate the first printer capable of printing composite materials ahead of the "Adir" (F-35I) aircraft's arrival at the unit. "The aircraft's unique capabilities require that we be professional in our use of composite materials", concluded Lt. Col. Ofer. "Most fighter jets are made of metal, but the 'Adir' is made of other materials. Its color, internal systems and communication systems require special treatment, and so the unit puts a strong emphasis on the subject. Our goal is that in the future, the IAF will be a global source of knowledge on 3D printing in aviation".