TEL NOF AIR BASE, Israel ― In a country steeped in political controversy and surrounded by strategic threats, military planners in Israel are looking to 3-D printing to bolster wartime self-sufficiency in the event of embargoes or supply chain disruptions.
Here at Depot 22 ― the Israeli Air Force’s central depot tasked with repairing and maintaining much of the force’s fixed-wing aircraft ― commanders are preparing to transition from 3-D scanning of selected parts to actual 3-D printing of those parts. The transition process, officers say, involves meticulous evaluation and testing, and will focus only on nonstructural parts that can endure stress loads of flight.
But once they master initial printing of flight-worthy parts, depot professionals say they’ll be on their way to an in-house ability to shorten supply chains and bridge strategic gaps that may confound them in times of war.
“In wartime, we can be here around the clock working to return aircraft to their home squadrons,” said Lt. Col. Maxim Orgad, commander of Depot 22’s Engineering Division. “The more we master this technology, the more we’ll be able to use it to save precious time and bridge critical gaps.”
Orgad said Depot 22 has spent nearly three years improving its ability to use 3-D scanners to support the designing and conventional manufacturing of spare parts. What used to take several weeks or months now takes a matter of hours or a few days, he said.
“Before, we had to make a mold of the part, but now we’re using a 3-D scanner, which we can take anywhere and use to scan different parts of the aircraft. The scanner makes the 3-D model, which we then take to our manufacturing center where we manufacturer through traditional methods,” the officer said.
“Granted, this is only the beginning. But eventually we’ll be able to reap even bigger benefits by actually printing our own parts.”
Over the past year, Depot 22 professionals have been flying 3-D-designed plastic parts on Heron and Hermes UAVs to analyze reliability and flight worthiness. The depot is also experimenting with small, noncritical parts associated with the CH-53, F-16 and F-15 aircraft, officers said.
Orgad said the depot’s focus is primarily on UAVs, where it is evaluating future operational needs and determining how they can be met by way of 3-D printing. To that end, Depot 22 is working with the Defense Ministry’s Defense Research and Development Directorate and industry to keep abreast of new technological and procedural developments.
“Our engineers are working in this new field. We’re researching the materials, properties and processes associated with 3-D design and manufacturing. We’re looking at how we can use this technology to fix airplanes and to fly on airplanes. … And as we gain knowledge and experience, we’ll begin to prove some parts in manned aircraft,” Orgad said, before pausing and quickly adding: “But we have a long way ahead of us until then.”
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.