C-5 Galaxy tails on the flightline frame a C-5 on final approach to Westover Air Reserve Base.

C-5 Galaxy tails on the flightline frame a C-5 on final approach to Westover Air Reserve Base. Master Sgt. Andrew Biscoe

US Air Force Is Waiting a Year for Parts That It Could 3D-Print

Its chief weapons buyer is mulling licensing arrangements to allow third-party manufacture.

Someday, the military will 3D-print missiles as needed, the U.S. Air Force’s acquisition chief says. In the shorter term, he just wants to use additive manufacturing technology to get broken planes back in the air. The roadblock is legal, not technical.

“I have airplanes right now that are waiting on parts that are taking a year and a half to deliver. A year and a half,” Will Roper, the assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said in an interview.

Today’s 3D-printers could make short work of those deliveries, but some of those parts’ original manufacturers control the intellectual property — and so far, the service lacks clear policy for dealing with that.

"[The] reason I can’t say we’re going to do it is we’re talking about government contracts and IP, so I have lawyers that are helping me and other contracts folks,” Roper said. “But it’s an area I’m going to stay focused because I see a way for win-win. And that doesn’t happen often in the government.”

Roper’s own Pentagon conference table prominently displays a collection of small 3D-printed parts, including a door handle for a C-5 Galaxy transport. Industry executives said they have seen the parts there during recent meetings.

The Air Force is already 3D-printing niche projects whose original suppliers no longer exist. The problem is with parts whose manufacturers are still around, but which no longer make the specific item in need.

During the interview, Roper scanned his office looking for a 3D-printed toilet seat cover used in a C-17 cargo plane. “I guess I gave it away again,” he said. The cover costs about $300 to print, he said, but the price to buy a new one is $10,000. How that’s possible? “Because we don’t need many of them,” he said.

“You’ll think: there’s no way it costs that,” Roper said. “No, it doesn’t, but you’re asking a company to produce it and they’re producing something else. And for them to produce this part for us, they have to quit producing” what they’re making now. “They’re losing revenue and profit. So although it looks like it’s a certain price in the GSA [Government Services Administration] catalog, the business case is what drives it up.

“I don’t think that company wants to stop building what they’re building” and restart the toilet-seat line, he continues. “Maybe there’s a way we could just print that latrine cover and there’s just some kind of profit margin or royalty that they get. We get the part faster and they don’t have to shift around [their workforce]. We’re thinking about this.”

“If we had kind of a licensing or fee agreement with them, we should be able to print that part and they get a kickback or a royalty and off we go,” he said. “It’s that kind of creative thinking that we need to do.”

Defense companies are using 3D printing more often today to build parts for weapons. Aerojet Rocketdyne is using the technology to build rocket engines, Huntington Ingalls is using it to build warships and Boeing is 3D printing parts for its commercial, defense, and space products.

“In particular, rapid prototyping, along with the creation of highly specific and technical parts (such as aircraft machinery or vehicle mirror fittings) are orders of magnitude faster and cheaper than traditional manufacturing methods,” said a recently released RAND report. “Many experts believe that these forces will cause profound disruptions to the current economic order.”

The report — which largely focuses on how America's adversaries might additive manufacturing — warns that 3D printing could allow users to “rapidly copy and slightly edit something to avoid patents laws.”

Experts also believe additive manufacturing and other technologies could disrupt some 5 million jobs, including many in the defense industry. “Digital technologies, service-based industries, and intellectual property (IP) resources could become increasingly important, displacing traditional manufacturing and labor across an ever greater number of industries,” the report said.