Chief Warrant Officer Tim Panek started work Technical Services Manager in the U.S. Coast Guard Industrial Operations Division (IOD) at the Aviation Logistics Center (ALC) in 2016.
From C-130s to 3D Printing
The ALC integrated 3D Printing several years before Tim arrived in 2016 arrived, and the technology was new to him.
“I’m approaching my 22nd anniversary in the Coast Guard. After 18 years as a C-130 mechanic and flight engineer, I applied for a program in aviation engineering that prepared me for this role at the ALC. This position is responsible for component overhaul, parts manufacture, and prototyping. I’m only the 2nd person to have this position. They had already been 3d printing for form blocks and design verification for several years. The direction that we’ve gone over the last few years mostly involves thermoplastics to aircraft parts for fleet service.”
The coast guard has 24 operational air stations. Each has at least one aviation engineer that is in charge of directing all of the maintenance at that unit. The ALC supports the air stations for the overhaul program with college-level career people, structural engineers, and aeronautical engineers. The ALC plays a project management role integrating additional personnel working on ground support equipment, avionics, power plants, engines.
Tim’s experience as an aviation mechanic provides a different perspective from people coming from an advanced manufacturing background. Most of his training has been on the job and in collaboratively with others.
3D Printed Parts and Airworthiness
According to Mr. Panek, the Coast Guard faces a variety of challenges in keeping its fleet air ready.
“One of our biggest challenges is supply issues. Parts just aren’t available for a lot of our aircraft, so we have to do a lot of reverse engineering. We work hand in hand with design engineers and structural engineers using 3d printing to test designs. We also use 3d printing also use it to make molds and form blocks.”
The Coast Guard also faces challenges certifying the “airworthiness” of 3d printed parts and components.
“The biggest hurdle is educating the technical warrant holders. These are the engineering authorities for each airframe. They actually approve materials that go on an aircraft. We work with them when we take something that was traditionally composite and do 3d printing to determine where it is safe and where it is not safe. We also face policy challenges. We can’t depend on testing from NavAir or private industry, so we are working on validating our policy for testing parts.”
Mr. Panek says that they have certified some parts like circuit breaker panels for airworthiness, but he is looking forward to expanding this program in the future.
The Future of 3D Printing in the Coast Guard
The Coast Guard is looking at a variety of applications for 3d printing and additive manufacturing in the coming years. They are in a fact-finding phase investigating cold spray for metal repair.
“We operate over 500 feet or less salt water, so corrosion is extreme. We are exploring a variety of advanced techniques for fighting corrosion and extending life for parts and components. We are also looking at coatings Electrocoat or E-coat. We are implementing that on some of the parts to help us get buy-in.”
“Our leadership has been very supportive of these efforts to help the Coast Guard take advantage of the latest technologies. The 3d printing aspect has been mostly painless. The machines are reliable, so I think there have only been a few times since I’ve been here when we’ve had to reach out to them for technical support. They come out for annual maintenance, but we don’t see them much in between. They are always professional and timely. The support from Stratasys has really been great.”