3D printers make 30-year-old Air Force planes ‘better than new’

The conversion of old and damaged equipment into first-class defense systems takes place at a base in central Israel

An IAF airman works on an F-15 at the Air Forces' AMU (IAF)
An IAF airman works on an F-15 at the Air Forces' AMU (IAF)

Budget-challenged and ever in need of new equipment, the IDF – and especially the Israeli Air Force – has learned to adapt, recycle, and renew equipment.

“In many ways, we have become the world center of technology to refurbish equipment,” according to a senior officer associated with the IAF’s Aerial Maintenance Unit (AMU).

“The original manufacturers of the equipment come here to see our upgrades and learn from us,” the officer said. “They are especially impressed to see what we are doing with 3D printers, and how we use them to produce parts that would be impossible to produce using regular manufacturing techniques.”

What the manufacturers, among them Boeing and Lockheed, come to see is the technology that the air force is using to keep planes that have been in the air for more than two decades operating as good as new – actually better, in most cases, he said.

“A new plane can cost tens of millions of dollars, and the delivery time can take years. We don’t have the money or the time to spend on such projects. Here in this unit we can turn an old plane into something that is quite capable of competing on the battlefield with new planes, and in fact we can ensure that these planes will remain competitive and mission-worthy for another decade.”

Located on the Tel Nof Air Base in central Israel, the AMU is the place where planes and helicopters go when they are damaged, outmoded, or otherwise unusable in their present state. The unit specializes in repairing the equipment, as well as upgrading it; in fact, all IAF planes undergo a regular upgrade every decade or so, said the officer.

“We check the soundness of the physical body to ensure that a plane can continue flying, and we also install advanced equipment, including engines, communication equipment, upgrades of radar, etc.,” said the officer. “Some of the planes we have worked with, like older models of the F-15 fighter jet, have in fact gone through two upgrades, and more than thirty years later they are still flying.”

The 'guts' of an F-15 (IAF)
The ‘guts’ of an F-15 (IAF)

And they are flying in combat missions. F-15s were part of the IAF’s fleet during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, and all performed superbly, said the officer. “Our objective is to keep a plane operating – and ahead of the technology curve – for as long as 50 years.”

An F-15 that goes through the AMU may look like it did when it was acquired in 1980, but when it leaves R’s shop it is a different plane altogether. “We have dozens of engineers here whose job it is to make sure that the planes we work with have top of the line equipment, whether in navigation, communication, or other systems,” said the officer.

“We convert the entire command system of the plane to digital technology, install new information screens, change the wiring – you name it. The 300 plus people we have on staff – which include everyone from new recruits in their mandatory service to civilian engineers – put in a million and half man-hours of work a year, and we produce planes that are 80% cheaper than the equivalent planes from manufacturers.”

A helicopter damaged in a crash undergoing refurbishing. The light green areas are replacement parts printed with a 3D printer (IAF)
A helicopter damaged in a crash undergoing refurbishing. The light green areas are replacement parts printed with a 3D printer (IAF)

3D printing technology, which the IAF discovered several years ago, has made the AMU’s job much easier, said the officer. “With all the technological upgrades we give planes, the first thing we have to do is ensure that they are air-worthy and structurally sound, and that usually means replacing parts on the body of the plane. But obviously parts for a 30-year old plane are going to be very hard to come by.”

Before 3D printing, the unit relied on engineers to produce specifications for a replacement unit, which were then brought to a designer and to a manufacturer, who modified their equipment to produce a replacement part. “Can you imagine what that was like? We are talking about a process that could go on for months to replace a single part. Basically you had to dedicate a whole factory to the production of that part,” said the officer.

An airplane part, fresh out of a 3D printer (IAF)
An airplane part, fresh out of a 3D printer (IAF)

But 3D printing has changed all that. “Now, we use a 3D camera to assemble a model of whatever part is needed, upload the data to the printer, and a few hours later we have the exact item we need, cut to the specifications we need to ensure the integrity of a plane,” said the officer. “Currently we have printers that produce plastic polymers that are as strong as aluminum, and they perform very well in the air. We are currently working on a project with Ben-Gurion University and the Office of the Chief Scientist to develop printers for metal, especially titanium, which is an important material for fighter planes.”

If the IAF is capable of turning a 30-year old plane into a fighter jet that will continue to be among the most technologically advanced for a decade to come, how come it doesn’t go all the way, and develop its own fighter plane?

“A very good question, but unfortunately that is impossible for us – the expense would be just too great,” said the officer. “It’s even too much for the United States itself – witness the development of the new F-35 stealth bomber [which Israel is set to acquire], which although it is being led by the US, is getting substantial technology input from the UK, Italy, Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Turkey, and others. We are a much more modest country with a much more modest budget – so it’s probably best for us to concentrate on our strengths, like taking the old planes and making them new.”

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