WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio —
Three Airmen from the 87th Airport Squadron currently deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, use 3D printers to troubleshoot operational issues in their spare time. Airmen are assigned to the 8th Expeditionary Air Mobility Squadron and work in the air port during the duty day.
When they have downtime, the trio meet in one of two innovation labs on AUAB to develop 3D-printed prototypes and brainstorm new ways to get things done more efficiently.
“They give us problems, and there are some problems that 3D printers can solve, so we’re working to solve them,” said Senior Airman Daniel Schnaars, who lives in Indiana and has taught subjects like computing and engineering at high levels. schools for nearly a decade.
Since discovering the lab and growing with the development of prototypes, the three airmen have been spending time in the lab every day.
“Sometimes we stay there for several hours at a time, and other times just to get in and start an impression,” Schnaars said.
So far, Airmen have collaborated to create several rapid prototypes, resulting in long-term solutions to real-world problems faced by Airmen on base.
“In our free time, or if we have downtime, we just jump here or there,” said Staff Sergeant. Trenton Westfall, who likes to invent things and took modeling and 3D printing lessons at home.
Between missions, Airmen use computers in their work centers to sketch and model their designs for printing.
“We’re just doing what we can in this six-month window,” Schnaars added.
The first issue they tackled involved more than 120 Airmen on a daily basis. In one of the dorms, six of the eight showers were unusable due to broken faucet knobs.
“On our floor alone there are 62 men,” said the master sergeant. Kirk Laytart. “About half of them work days and half work nights, so you can imagine the chaos at 6 or 7 in the morning trying to use one of the only two showers available. I found out that I had to wake up much earlier so I could take a shower and get ready for work.
Initially, Schnaars used his squadron-provided multi-tool to turn on the water in one of the broken showers, but it wasn’t a lasting workaround for all the broken faucets. This was the starting point for the team’s collaboration.
“3D printing is great when you need to reverse engineer and replace a broken part, or duplicate an item that’s no longer in production,” Schnaars said.
The team spent about half of their shift drafting the first prototype. They tested it and made some adjustments. Schnaars and Westfall returned to the lab to continue tweaking and improving the design.
“The first version wasn’t perfect,” Schnaars said. “We installed them and they started to wear out and had to be replaced quickly, but we just considered that part of the field testing process.”
After around 35 hours of designing, printing, testing and adjusting, the trio landed on the faucet handles now installed in the six previously unusable showers.
“The shower handles have allowed us to restore every shower to working order. It made a big difference to the 120 people living in the building with broken showers,” Laytart said.
Following their success with the tap buttons, Laytart was walking through the area where the large cargo loading equipment is parked during his shift and realized there was another 3D printing opportunity for the team.
“I noticed that almost all the windshields of our 60K loaders were dirty,” he explained.
The vehicles’ windshield washer fluid reservoirs were empty, and due to the reservoir’s inconvenient placement under the hood, filling the reservoirs was a cumbersome task, Laytart said.
“Airmen would meticulously open tiny bottles of liquid and pour them into the tank by hand – it took about 20 minutes to fill each tank,” Laytart said.
Together with Schnaars and Westfall, they designed and printed a funnel tool, known as a “filler arm”, with exact dimensions to sit on engine parts that prevent tank access, and a long arm extending to container opening.
“It just sits on this shelf,” Laytart said. “No problems, no spills, no waste, no damage.”
And the filling arm speeds up the tank filling process.
“A 20-minute job is now a 30-second job,” Schnaars added.
The latest innovation the team worked on was a personal protective equipment case, designed for Airmen working on the flight line. Holsters attach to utility belt and provide convenient storage of foam earplugs and work gloves.
“It was an issue that our leaders asked us to work on,” Schnaars said.
They developed an initial prototype, then printed and distributed 12 of the PPE clips for field testing.
“Now everyone is asking for one,” Westfall said.
Once the team has made design adjustments based on prototype feedback, they intend to provide grassroots leadership with design specifications.
“There’s something really neat about having an idea in your head and holding it in your hand the next day,” Schnaars said.
Glancing over his shoulder at the whirring printer, Westfall added, “Or even an hour later.