Army to start 3D-printing Black Hawk replacement parts because nobody else makes them anymore

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A view through the gunner's window as two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters assigned to Task Force Eagle Assault, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade transport Train, Advise, Assist Command - East leaders and advisers to the Afghan National Police Regional Training Center, April 28, 2015.

A view through the gunner's window as two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters assigned to Task Force Eagle Assault, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade transport Train, Advise, Assist Command - East leaders and advisers to the Afghan National Police Regional Training Center, April 28, 2015.

Researchers at Wichita State University will take apart an Army helicopter in order to create a “digital twin” that can help with maintaining and sustaining the military aircraft.

The partnership between the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command and Wichita State involves researchers at the National Institute for Aviation Research and a Black Hawk helicopter, according to a Tuesday news release from the university. The purpose is to “resolve challenges and boost efficiencies” for the aging helicopter fleet as it faces maintenance and supply chain issues.

Researchers at NIAR will create a virtual model of a UH-60L Black Hawk by capturing 3D scans of each structural part. To do that, they must completely disassemble the airframes of an operational helicopter and a separate fuselage brought to Wichita from the Corpus Christi Army Depot.

The Black Hawk entered military service 41 years ago, but has been out of production for 15 years. Creating a digital twin can allow additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, to reproduce parts that are no longer readily available.

The Black Hawk that will be disassembled and digitally cloned in Wichita

The Black Hawk that will be disassembled and digitally cloned in Wichita

Wichita State researchers have been working on applying 3D printing to aviation manufacturing, saying it will prepare the Air Capital of the World for the future of the industry. The applications of 3D printing caught the attention of the acting secretary of the Army when he toured WSU’s research facilities last summer with Sen. Jerry Moran.

“The intent is to enable readiness across the Army and the UH-60 fleets in the joint service and the applicable foreign military sales environment,” AMCOM Commander Maj. Gen. Todd Royar said in a statement. “At the same time, we generate new opportunities to provide parts that are obsolete, low-volume or small quantity. The result is reduced operation and sustainment costs.”

The Army intends to keep Black Hawk helicopters flying over the next decade. However, the military faces various challenges with finding new parts.

“Certain low-use or low-volume parts don’t receive any bids from vendors,” Royar said. “When we need those parts, we need the opportunity to get them in the system quickly — not the two-plus years it sometimes takes right now.”

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