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Cold spray restoration on active flying aircraft

Staff Sgt. Chynna Patterson, a 28th Maintenance Group additive manufacturing spray technician, and David Darling, the 28th MXG additive manufacturing site manager, performs a cold spray restoration at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., May 12, 2021.

Staff Sgt. Chynna Patterson, a 28th Maintenance Group additive manufacturing spray technician, and David Darling, the 28th MXG additive manufacturing site manager, performs a cold spray restoration at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., May 12, 2021. The cold spray machine uses helium gas to accelerate particles to a speed of Mach 3, and upon application, the particles form a mechanical bond with the area of impact. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quentin K. Marx)

Staff Sgt. Chynna Patterson, a 28th Maintenance Group additive manufacturing spray technician, and David Darling, the 28th MXG additive manufacturing site manager, wait for the VRC Raptor Cold Spray machine to heat up at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., May 12, 2021.

Staff Sgt. Chynna Patterson, a 28th Maintenance Group additive manufacturing spray technician, and David Darling, the 28th MXG additive manufacturing site manager, wait for the VRC Raptor Cold Spray machine to heat up at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., May 12, 2021. The cold spray machine was developed by VRC Metal Systems to be cost effective and capable of restoring aging aircraft components. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quentin K. Marx)

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- The 28th Maintenance Group Additive Manufacturing Flight conducted its first restoration of an active flying aircraft in May and repaired an over wing faring slip joint.

The slip joint had to be repaired to enable vertical movement within the wing contours, both up and down. In the same manner of which a hinge holds a door in position as it is opened and closed, the slip joint does a similar job for the B-1’s wings. 

“During cold spray we used helium gas to accelerate the particles to a speed of Mach 3,” said Brian James, the 28th MXG additive manufacturing chief engineer. “Upon impact, the particles become the substrate, forming a strong mechanical bond.”

What normally takes weeks or months of time to order, ship and remove the old component and install the new part, can now be done in mere hours or days by using cold spray technology, said James. Annually, the Additive Manufacturing Flight saves the Air Force approximately $2 million.

“The only other alternative to fixing the slip joint, if we didn’t use cold spray, would be to remove and replace the part, which would cost roughly $500,000 and [take] 8 weeks to remove,” said James.

The 28th Bomb Wing established the Air Force’s initial field-level additive manufacturing flight in 2019, which utilizes new technologies that are cost effective and can restore aging aircraft components. Using the cold spray process saves time and cuts costs by roughly 98% compared to the original method of replacing aircraft parts.

For the past seven years, Ellsworth worked alongside VRC Metal Systems, a company that specializes in the manufacturing of cold spray machinery, cold spray related process work development and research, and development of new cold spray applications for government and commercial applications. During this time, the VRC Raptor Cold Spray machine was developed and helped the base accomplish part restoration historical feats.

“We spent a lot of time and effort designing this system,” said Rob Hrabe, the VRC Metal Systems chief executive officer and co-founder. “Seeing it used on an aircraft that can benefit from such cost savings and time improvement makes all of the effort over the years worth it.”

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