JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
In an unsuspecting building dubbed the "3D Printing Center of Excellence," machines are whirling, ideas are flying and the passion is evident.
The 149th Fighter Wing, located at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, was provided with multiple 3D printers for use to explore possibilities and expand innovation within the unit and Gunfighter volunteers have wasted no time signing up to do just that.
For Master Sgt. Carlos Gill, the non-commissioned officer in charge of metals technology for the 149th FW, the center provides a clean space where Airmen can come together and create great things through joint innovation and collaboration.
“The key is finding talent that will add to the fight,” Gill said. “There is a great need for thinking creatively, thinking differently about how we do things ... to see if there’s a better way when we are met with a new challenge.”
Gill had been experimenting with 3D printing for a while but things really took off during the turbulent times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of people came out of nowhere and said they wanted to contribute in some way to getting through the hard times of COVID-19,” Gill said. “And all of a sudden you find out that colleagues you’ve been working with for years in the same unit have the same interests. We were all working toward trying to survive the recent events that have affected all of our lives and when those needs departed, you had people that said, ‘I like this, I want to go further with this and design things to print that can help in other ways.’”
Tech. Sgt. Paul Renker, a hydraulics technician for the 149th Maintenance Group, also had some experience with printing. During the pandemic when personal protective equipment was in short supply, he found a file to print some PPE for emergency responders.
“A friend of mine who works at a hospital had mentioned that her masks were rubbing her face raw from wearing them all day,” Renker said. “So I was able to print spacers that kept them off of her ears and gave a bunch of them to other healthcare workers. It was a really important time for me to be able to help people using 3D printing.”
With the occasional supply chain issues, Renker and his fellow enthusiasts have also been able to make equipment such as radio trays, tool organizers, training knives, and visual aids for pilots cheaper and faster than purchasing them, optimizing capabilities.
“I’m always on the lookout for tools we can manufacture for our shop to spread awareness of how this can be useful,” Renker said. “I just reach out and say I have an idea that I’d like to try out and we partner up to take a look at the settings, see if changes need to be made, and throw it in the machine after we prep it to see what we get. We put a concept to the test, proof of process, and see if it works or go back to the drawing board. The center is a good working environment that’s separated from the hustle and bustle and it’s conducive to learning and applying these ideas.”
When searching for innovation ambassadors within the unit, Gill looks for people that have an idea to make their workplace better or improve something in their process and then provides them with a place to put it to the test.
For Staff Sgt. Benjamin Rath, a fuels systems technician with the 149th Maintenance Squadron, 3D printing has the potential to maximize efficiency and facilitate solutions.
“These machines can print using softer plastics and we use materials like that a lot on aircraft for gaskets and other pieces,” Rath said. “Sometimes we have to wait a week before we can get a jet up if you’re waiting for a gasket to come in but if we had a design for it and were able to bring it here, we could have had a replacement part the same day. So I think there’s a lot of applications as far as maintenance is concerned and a lot of possibilities in a setting like this where we have a wealth of knowledge.”
According to Gill, when the team meets up to share their wisdom and test out ideas it may look like play because they enjoy doing it, but the outcome and return on investment are what they would like to showcase within the Air Force.
“This is what I love to do, find ways to marry things I enjoy to the fight,'' Gill said. ``When we get together here, you never know what ideas could come out of it. It fits the need and there is value in what we are doing.”