Training the next generation.
Based at Sheppard Air Force Base, Wichita Falls, Texas, the Trainer Development Flight (TDF) is a facility that designs, develops, and manufactures trainers and training aids for the Air Force and all branches of the Department of Defense (DoD) as required. These items are used in numerous training environments, including avionics, weapons and fuel systems, medical readiness, HVAC, and telecommunications systems.
The trainers and training aids may be either original products or replicas of existing ones, depending on the training need. Some devices are not required to be working units, so it usually isn’t cost-efficient to purchase the actual item. For most training applications, it’s more economical to train students on replicas, instead of the often extremely expensive equipment.
The TDF uses direct digital manufacturing to fabricate a wide majority of its training products. To do so, it employs four FDM additive fabrication machines in a centralized location with AFSO 21 (Lean) processes incorporated into the overall process.
Before adding direct digital manufacturing to its processes, the TDF used conventional manufacturing methods to make its products. Conventional manufacturing typically requires longer lead times because there is often multiple steps, such as machining, lathe work, welding, sheet metal bending and cutting. A similar difficulty occurs when producing tooling to mold a part.
“Because most of our projects are either one-of-a-kind or very low volume, conventional methods become very expensive,” says Mitchell Weatherly, Chief of the TDF. “Only about 10 percent of our work is for prototyping, and 90 percent is production.”
“For our first FDM machine purchase, we projected ROI in 4 years, but it took only 18 months,” Weatherly says. “For our second FDM machine purchase, we saw ROI in only 9 months. You will never get away from conventional methods and highly skilled technicians, but you can give them the proper tools and new technology that can make their job easier and competitive. I believe FDM is one of the technologically advanced premier manufacturing methods available. Since 2004, when we purchased our first of four machines, the FDM process has saved the government over $3.8 million to date with an expected 10-to-15-year savings of over $15 million.
Before settling on FDM, the TDF considered “a multitude” of the other additive processes, says Weatherly. “With FDM, the investment is upfront, not ongoing,” he says. “The parts are durable, and they have a high level of detail we require. In addition, the process is environmentally safe and 100% ‘green’ with zero-waste.”