SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. --
The Joint Explosive Ordnance Disposal community identified the need for a unit-level additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, capability in 2014 to accomplish two objectives: to field low-cost training aids and obtain rare or specialized EOD tools.
The 4th Civil Engineer Squadron EOD flight became one of the first units Air Force-wide to acquire a 3-D printer in June 2016 and begin to pave the way for the career field’s next generation of training.
“There’s a lot of benefit to being able to produce items for training,” said Senior Airman Nathanael Banden, 4th CES EOD technician. “In addition to providing opportunities for more realistic training as the library of available [models] expands, our technicians will have access to items they may have only been able to see in pictures or a glass case somewhere due to rarity or expense.”
With the use of 3-D printing, items that once may have only been available to specific EOD units can now be made available to those units that have procured their own 3-D printer.
According to Master Sgt. John Moore, Air Force Civil Engineer Center Joint EOD equipment management section chief, there is an average decrease in cost of more than 90 percent between purchasing training aids and printing them. For example, the cost per unit of a 60 millimeter mortar is more than $700, whereas the cost to print a replica of this item is less than $6. It would also eliminate any shipping charges as the items could be created in-house.
“With 3-D printing, the unit can rapidly manufacture a minimal amount of operational tools, and as the stock dwindles, simply replace them,” Moore said. “With the ease of fabrication, they will also be able to exercise more of their more destructive procedures on these training aids without worrying how they will be replaced. All they need to do is print more. This creates a much more realistic training experience.”
Several new tools are currently under development at the Air Force Civil Engineer Center EOD Technology Division, in Indian Head, Maryland, to capitalize on this technology, Banden added. These advancements include linear water cutters, a hemispherical water charge and a speed cap which can convert almost any commercial water bottle into a disruption tool.
“When we deploy downrange, we’re possibly going to be exposed to weapons systems we’ve never seen before,” Banden said. “Having things in-house we can train on beforehand [gives us the confidence] to say, ‘I know exactly what I’m supposed to do to make that item safer or to work around it safely. I’ve seen it before; I’m confident; let’s move ahead.’ Repetition builds a lot of knowledge and confidence in what you’re doing, which is critical, especially in the mission downrange.”
Banden explained EOD technicians often have to terminate exercises before they are able to employ many of their more destructive procedures in order to avoid damaging expensive or irreplaceable training aids. With the ability to instead produce these aids using inexpensive plastic materials, EOD technicians can cut, shear, puncture or completely obliterate a training munition to fully complete an exercise.
In addition to training aids, certain items like the speed cap can be used downrange as a part of a standard deployment kit.
“Hopefully in the future, downrange units will have 3-D printers,” Banden said. “If we run out of something we have in our deployment kits, we can just print more without having to ship it over from stateside and wait for it. Or, say my radio bracket snapped and I really [need] that radio, I can simply print a new bracket. Simple things like that save time and lives.”
Banden further explained 3-D printing has the potential to displace huge portions of the logistics process across the entire Air Force, not just within the EOD career field. As the ability to print with more unusual materials matures and becomes more cost effective, there maybe unforeseen uses for the 3-D printer in the future such as replacement parts for damaged robots or vehicles; reducing cost and mission down time.