3D Printing Aircraft Tools with Ultimaker and the Royal Netherlands Air Force
The Royal Netherlands Air Force operates a fleet of military aircraft which they are tasked with maintaining to operational standards. From Chinooks and Apaches to NH90s and F16s, their fleet is incredibly diverse and the military base in Woensdrecht is also home to the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s academy, the Koninklijke Militaire School Luchtmacht.
Bas Janssen, member of the Ambition Innovation Results (AIR) division, is focused on a makerspace within the base, the MakAIRsJop, which he uses to gain and share knowledge on new manufacturing techniques. One of these is 3D printing, a technology which has enabled students and engineers to create innovative (and novel) solutions to maintenance problems.
“The people who work with 3D printing often have no technical background, but only need about three hours of training,” says Janssen, “After that, they start looking for solutions for issues they have in their work.”
Spare parts, tools, and fixtures
Performing maintenance on complex aircraft can be a huge challenge because there are so many uncommon and custom parts. Bas’s workshop started out with multiple Ultimaker 3 printers which have been used to create spare parts, tools and fixtures. By moving the production of these in-house, they can create tools that fit specific applications affordably. A good example is aircraft body coverings, which can be printed in just a few hours. These are used to cover up vents and gaps in an aircraft’s body during transportation.
Another application is 3D printing special tools to adjust equipment, for example helicopter parts. These can be printed in around two hours and put to use right away. The parts last and last the same as machined parts do. And if any variance is required from machine to machine, printing up a new part costs little and takes no time at all. “We use the Ultimaker to print tools, fixtures, and prototypes with the highest standards,” says Janssen.
All these parts are traditionally slow and expensive to manufacture. And where metal parts are required, Bas uses Ultimaker printers for prototyping and fit-testing. This allows the team to easily and cost-effectively iterate on designs before making the final part. This has a performance benefit and ensures all final parts are made to the right specification.
Taking 3D printing further
3D printing allows Bas and his team at the Royal Netherlands Air Force to manufacture custom parts, tools and fixtures affordably. The results have been so impressive they recently added an Ultimaker S5 to the workshop. This enables them to print even bigger parts. The S5 has a 330 x 240 x 300mm build volume and has a dual extrusion print head with swappable print cores. The open filament system means the team can also test new materials without being tied down to a proprietary material range (although Ultimaker’s filaments are exceptional).
3D printing with the Ultimaker 3 allows Air Force engineers to manufacture tools and fixtures with pinpoint accuracy and precision. The Ultimaker 3 doesn’t just print smoothly it prints accurately. The motors are engineered and tested to achieve the very highest accuracy printing at 0.25 mm, 0.4 mm and 0.8 mm, while industrial grade mechatronics ensure high uptime and a reliable, consistent 3D printing experience 24-7.
Bas recommends all Royal Netherlands Air Force locations take advantage of 3D printing. “Our transition to a fifth-generation Air Force can only be done with people who realize that they can be a part of that change now, not later. Ultimaker makes it possible to do just that: help people understand what additive manufacturing can do for them right now – without a long learning curve. The current software and hardware help people to make their idea come to life”.
In the future, Bas and his team want to use 3D printing across more end-use applications and take the Koninklijke Militaire School Luchtmacht’s involvement in 3D printing to a higher level to create a culture for innovation and problem solving. “The 3D printer should be a regular tool in your set of tools to make stuff,” he says.
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