NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. ― Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, the head of U.S. Air Force Materiel Command, has a supplier issue.

The service is constantly struggling to find suppliers for parts on aging planes that the original manufacturers may no longer produce. In some cases, the companies that built the part have long exited the business, but the Air Force requirements remain.

“Oftentimes we have parts that we can no longer get, and they’re in small numbers, so we can’t get interest in the part of an industry to build something when there’s only a small number and they have to retool or do that,” she told reporters at the Air Force Association’s annual conference on Sept. 18.

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The only solution at the moment, according to Pawlikowski? “Well, we have to pay more. We often can find somebody, but at an awful high price, and we’re beholden to them because we don’t have any competition.”

She hopes that will change in the near future, however, thanks to developments in additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing.

It’s hardly a new technology at this point, but two things have changed for how the Air Force looks at the potential of 3-D printing. The first is that the technology has become more widespread and adopted across the Pentagon. Where even a few years ago there was resistance to the idea a 3-D printed part could be as reliable as a classically forged piece, there is now acceptance that parts printed via additive manufacturing can be secure and stable.

Hand in hand with that, Pawlikowski said, is the growth in how 3-D printers can manipulate metals, as opposed to plastic polymers.

“We are making some huge strides, by the way, in the area of 3-D printing in the Life Cycle Management Center, in the [Air Force] Research Lab, to be able to reliably and consistently use metals,” she said. “Up to this point, when you see things on 3-D printing, most of that is plastics. I can’t build all airplane parts out of plastics.”

Her office is also looking at other ways to help keep the supply chain active, trying to replicate the open-mission systems approach, used in developing the B-21 bomber, for other aircraft. The idea is to encourage competition among competitors and increase the number of companies that can develop for that system.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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