By: Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force
A US Air Force C-5 Galaxy cargo plane equipped with predictive maintenance sensors made history recently when it “told” aircraft technicians that a part was about to fail and maintenance was needed. Understated as it was, the episode marks another significant moment for the Air Force and our effort to develop new tools for maintaining aircraft in a way that increases readiness and lowers cost.
Predictive maintenance involves analyzing aircraft on-board sensor data, telemetry data, and historical maintenance data to develop usage-based algorithms to identify degraded components or systems. By utilizing onboard prognostics and diagnostic sensor data users can provide recommended actions via alerts to the appropriate stakeholders as to the right time and place to change a component. While the current predictive maintenance system is still in its early stages, the goal is for aircraft to tell us, in real time, what parts are about to fail before they fail.
Achieving that will translate directly to improved readiness and reduced cost.
The Air Force’s early results show a potential 30 percent reduction in unscheduled maintenance on the subsystems of the aircraft we are testing. We intend to move to conditions-based maintenance approach for all aircraft as rapidly as possible.
Predictive maintenance is only one of the new tools we are testing to build a more lethal and ready Air Force.
One of the most time-consuming steps in maintaining airplanes is removing paint. Working with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Advanced Technology and Training Center, the Air Force is developing lasers to replace hazardous solvents and elbow grease to strip paint off of airplanes. Where the old technique filled a 55-gallon drum with hazardous waste, using lasers sharply reduces the amount of waste. It also reduces the labor needed to remove paint, which saves both time and money.
We are testing – and in some cases already using – 3D printing to create replacement parts in a process known as additive manufacturing. Expanding this capability will allow the Air Force to print parts on-demand parts across our global operation.
The Air Force now has more than fifty 3D printers in use at 17 locations. We also have 16 printers that produce metal parts. The C-5 is using nine parts produced by additive manufacturing, and this is only the beginning. We expect 3D printing of spare parts, particularly for older aircraft, to change the way we do maintenance.
Among the parts being produced or being tested include armrests and switch knobs for microphones, crew compartment panels and in one case, a dashboard casing for a B1-B Lancer. 3D printers are also used to produce and test more quickly and at much lower cost prototype replacement parts.
3D printing is, perhaps, the most well-known new technique, but it isn’t the only one being adopted by the Air Force. The Air Force is increasingly using cold spray technology to repair high cost parts that in an earlier era would have been replaced. Cold spray applies metallic powders at high speed that, upon impact, adhere to the surface. This technology is being used to repair hydraulic lines and skin panels for the B-1 bomber.
As with predictive maintenance, additive manufacturing can simplify a supply chain and give us replacement parts faster and at lower cost.
It’s important to recognize too that the flightline of the future is much more than simply changing the way we make replacement parts.
At Sheppard AFB, Airmen are using what’s called the Adaptive Gaming and Training Environment to reduce the time required to train maintainers by 30 percent. If it works, we want to spread the idea across the service.
While the particulars and details vary, the thread connecting all of these efforts is a tireless focus on improving the readiness of the force by driving innovation in the way we maintain aircraft. We have no time to wait.
Heather Wilson is the 24th Secretary of the Air Force and is responsible for the affairs of the Department of the Air Force, including the organizing, training and equipping and providing for the welfare of 685,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve, and civilian forces as well as their families. She oversees the Air Force’s annual budget of more than $138 billion and directs strategy and policy development, risk management, weapons acquisition, technology investments and human resource management across a global enterprise.