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The U.S. Air Force Looks To Advanced Manufacturing To Keep Existing Aircraft Flying And Develop Next-Gen Capabilities

What if there were Olympic events that weren’t physical, but were focused instead on completely geeking out on super-cool breakthrough technologies for real-world aerospace and defense challenges? Even better, what if they offered prize money totaling nearly a million dollars?

Now there are just such events, thanks to the U.S. Air Force’s Rapid Sustainment Office (RSO). In fact, participants in five such Olympic “sports” (or Technical Challenges, as the RSO calls them) have already been competing over the past few months. Those competitions will culminate when the winners are announced during next week’s four-day Advanced Manufacturing Olympics. This virtual conference runs from October 20-23, and features technology demonstrations, expert speakers from both industry and the military, virtual networking opportunities, and the awarding of prized for those Technical Challenges mentioned above.

“RSO is working to revolutionize sustainment, while building an agile supply chain for the future,” said Nathan Parker, Deputy Program Executive Officer at the RSO. “Originally, we were planning to hold this inaugural event outside Salt Lake City, Utah. But then Covid hit, so we’ve taken the whole thing virtual.”

Event speakers will include military officials such as Barbara M. Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force; General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Chief of Staff of the Air Force; and General John W. Raymond, Chief of Space Operations of the U.S. Space Force. Other speakers featured are Sebastian Thrun, founder of Google X; Dr. Mae Jemison, NASA astronaut; and Brad Kesolowski, NASCAR Cup Series driver and founder of Kesolowski Advanced Manufacturing.

The five Technical Challenges began with an application process for participants this past June. “The Technical Challenges are not generic manufacturing or supply chain problems,” Parker explained. “They’re specific to real-world barriers in the Air Force’s ability to realize the full benefits of Advanced Manufacturing. They’re designed to be like Olympic sports.” They are:

·        TDP Relay – accurately recreate a 3D printed part from an existing Technical Data Package (digital file) using innovative techniques, all while demonstrating accuracy, skill, and completeness.

·        Box of Parts – demonstrate 3D scanning and modeling technology by reverse-engineering broken and worn-out parts that don’t have design drawings available.

·        Material Hurdles – demonstrate practical-use breakthrough materials and technologies for sustainment part production by submitting hexagonal blanks of additively-manufactured high strength aluminum, polymer, and hybrid materials.

·        Approval Sprints – offer methods to improve Air Force certification methods and timelines by identifying innovative strategies for rapid design, qualification and deployment of a specific polymer additively-manufactured F-16 fighter jet replacement component.

·        Supply Chain Marathon – demonstrate improvements to defense fleet supply logistics challenges by using novel advanced manufacturing concepts and innovative supply chain management approaches (manufacturing locations, types of equipment, distribution network and response times) to solve for a specified wartime field readiness challenge.

“To do any of those is a significant feat,” said Parker. “We have a very strong cross-section of participants coming from startups, established companies and universities. We have five expert panels, made up of over 25 judges from academia, the U.S. Military (Air Force, Army, and Navy), the Federal Aviation Administration, Ford, Amazon, and aerospace & defense companies.” For each of the five categories, the prizes are $100,000 for first place, $50,000 for second, and $40,000 for third, for a total prize pot of $950,000. That substantial prize money is specifically intended to help the winners continue to develop the solutions they identify.

The focus of the competitions, as well as the overall event next week, is to find answers to very real problems the Air Force faces. “The RSO was established in 2018 to pursue new, emerging, and disruptive technologies to help dramatically improve the readiness of Air Force fleets,” Parker said. “Approximately 60% of our supply chain is either single sourced, or involves parts that are no longer available through traditional manufacturing. The Air Force is serious about adopting advanced manufacturing to support breakthroughs for both our existing aircraft fleets, and for the design of future aircraft.”

“The Air Force RSO is excited to launch the inaugural Advanced Manufacturing Olympics,” said Lt. General Shaun Q. Morris, Commander of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and Program Executive Officer for the RSO. “This is a great opportunity to harness the best ideas from academia, industry and government to solve some of the most pressing challenges the Air Force faces in growing the adoption of advanced manufacturing.”

Since this is the inaugural event, the intent is clearly to hold more such events in the future. “We’re still considering the frequency for future AMO’s,” said Parker. “After this inaugural AMO, we will conduct an evaluation to guide the decision for future events.”

Parker stresses that next week’s event holds broad appeal. “Anyone interested in Industry 4.0 technologies will be well-served to tune in,” he said. “This is an innovation playground. It’s something that will be of interest to the average viewer, but will have special appeal to those currently working to resolve the biggest challenges in industrializing Advanced Manufacturing.”

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