Aviation signs contract to certify engine part built through additive manufacturing process for airworthiness

By Cathy Hopkins DLA Aviation Public Affairs Office

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Defense Logistics Agency Aviation, the Air Force and General Electric signed a contract March 17 to construct and evaluate an engine part for airworthiness produced using additive manufacturing processes. It is a first for DLA and the Air Force.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Propulsion Directorate, located at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, reached out to DLA Aviation back in September 2019 to leverage the activity’s General Electric Captains of Industry Contract to accelerate the Air Force’s adoption of additive manufacturing.  The goal is to improve readiness through improved production. One objective to meeting that goal is to certify military aircraft parts produced via additive manufacturing.

DLA Aviation’s Captains of Industry contracts are holistic support contracts with built in performance metrics geared to improved readiness for targeted weapon systems at reduced costs to the government.

In a January message to the DLA director, DLA Aviation Commander Air Force Brig. Gen. David Sanford said, “This is an exciting initiative and has the potential to advance the use of AM in engine sustainment, improving readiness short- and long-term for engines, but more importantly, to improve confidence in AM technologies that may lead to expansion in other areas.”

The Propulsion Directorate wanted DLA Aviation’s help in evaluating a GE proposal to additively manufacture a sump pump cover used on General Electric’s F110 and F118 engines that account for about 1,000 Air Force engines. These engines power the F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft and the B-2 bomber. With initial funding provided by AFLCMC’s Rapid Sustainment Office, the Propulsion Directorate began collaborating with DLA Aviation and GE.

DLA Aviation, GE and AFLCMC stakeholders visited each other’s work sites for the last six months with both the Air Force and DLA traveling to GE’s additive manufacturing plant in Blue Ash, Ohio, and Air Force and DLA leaders traveling between Richmond, Virginia and Oklahoma.

“The sump cover was a great design.  It’s been working for over 30 years.  Unfortunately, when you haven’t ordered any new parts in a long time, no one is making new ones.  Now that we need some, they are very hard to get,” said Leonard Hayes, program manager for Technology Insertion in the Air Force’s Propulsion Directorate. “It doesn’t make a very good long-term business case for industry to keep using traditional processes to support our small and aging fleets of USAF weapon systems.  We fly airframes and engines the commercial airlines retired decades ago.  Our partnership with DLA is setting the table for the future.” Hayes went on to say that “Once we get additive processes certified for flight, DLA sources will be able to provide parts at a reasonable cost and delivery schedule, and still turn a profit for many years.”

“We are providing the contract vehicle through our existing GE F-Series Captains of Industry Contract,” said Janelle Allen, chief, Strategic Contracting Division I, Strategic Acquisition Programs Directorate, DLA Aviation. “The GE contract was originally awarded in 2014 and started with less than 1,000 parts. In the last 10 years, DLA Aviation has added nearly 2,000 additional parts through this flexible contracting vehicle.”  

The pump cover, a consumable part on the contract is currently made through traditional methods, purchased by DLA Aviation, who in turn sales it to the Air Force. If accepted, the certificated AM part would be added as a subsumable contract to the existing contract. A subsumable contract adds on to the base contract with the same terms and conditions.

DLA Aviation continues to work closely with its Air Force customers and their engineering support activity. The newly signed concept subsumable contract will determine the feasibility of producing this part in this manner. The activity’s proposal evaluation included justifying the labor and engineering hours needed to create and certify the item for airworthiness, as well as, produce a sustainable process for future items in the same family of parts, defined as made of the same type of metal and manufactured in the same general way. DLA Aviation negotiated objectives and a statement of work to ensure expectations were met and match Air Force requirements.

“More than the part, the process is being tested for repeatability,” said Allen. “Additive machine/printers are certified to create certain families of metals from digitized drawings to create parts molds, like office copiers can print black and white or colored copies.”

The pump cover isn’t the only item under consideration for AM according to Allen, who said, the Air Force and General Electric are looking at a universe of items on DLA Aviation’s current GE contract.  Once the pump cover is certified for use by the Air Force’s ESA to meet military specifications, the hope is that in the long term the process could be applied to that family of parts.

General Electric has already proven its additive manufacturing processes in the production of commercial engine parts that are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Their AM processes are cutting the average 60-week production time from traditional methods to approximately one month.