Expanded Capabilities at FRCE Innovation Lab

When inspiration strikes at Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE), the Fleet Support Team’s Advanced Technology and Innovation (ATI) Team stands ready to help translate ideas into reality. In the team’s Innovation Lab, engineers and artisans can find the various technologies and resources they need to imagine creative solutions to issues facing the Fleet and depot.

Now, following a robust investment in equipment upgrades, the Innovation Lab boasts expanded capabilities that can address more challenges in the areas of military aviation maintenance, repair, overhaul and engineering. Bigger, faster equipment and the ability to 3D print with newer, chemical resistant materials have resulted in increased applications for the lab’s products, said Randall Lewis, Innovation Lab lead. A new laser cutter and development of an etching process for 3D-printed parts add additional possibilities.

“We now have materials in the lab that are chemical-resistant and able to withstand contact with jet fuel,” he explained. “Other materials are electrostatic discharge safe, allowing for use in electronics applications. We are also able to address high-temperature applications and, with the larger printers, we can produce larger parts as well.”

With these additional capabilities on-site, the Innovation Lab is able to produce not only prototype items, but also usable end items. Having the ability to use 3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing – to produce a wide variety of items has helped reduce turnaround times and costs associated with developing new and improved tools, support equipment, components and more.

“We’re very quickly moving from only being able to make engineering prototypes to a reality where many of the parts we make are being put into service when a specific application allows, such as support equipment, or as shop aids or job aids,” Lewis said. “A lot of our parts get used in the depot and Fleet environments, and that’s one of the cool things about the Innovation Lab.”

One of the items that found its way into a real-world application, a port cover for the F402 engine’s digital engine control unit (DECU), helped keep production moving on the engine that provides the power for the Marine Corps’ AV-8B Harrier.

“There was a backlog of DECUs that the depot couldn’t release to the Fleet or original equipment manufacturer due to a lack of port covers,” Lewis said. “These small aluminum covers had a lead time of over one year. We were able to 3D print fuel-safe replacements from a chemical-resistant polymer, and the depot was able to clear that backlog within a few days, at a small fraction of the cost of sourcing the original aluminum covers. We were able to use our Innovation Lab capabilities to get components off the shelf much faster than waiting on the supply system.”

Another additive manufacturing solution seeing real-world use is a drill template set used to help squadron-level H-60 helicopter maintainers install a new omni-directional antenna mount onto the airframe, which was developed and 3D printed in the Innovation Lab. The antenna mount itself was also prototyped at FRCE, then manufactured by an outside contractor.

Using 3D printing to develop prototypes rather than traditional manufacturing has helped engineers cut production times of these items – often to just hours, compared to times of up to 60 days or more when using traditional manufacturing methods.

“The Innovation Lab was built around the reality that we didn’t have a good way to make quick-turn engineering prototypes,” Lewis said. “Using the advanced technologies available, we’ve been able to drastically reduce times and the material costs.”

The Innovation Lab also does work supporting 3D printed applications that will eventually be sent to squadrons across the Fleet, which will then print the final item using their own 3D printers.

“A lot of our engineers are developing items here that they know they’ll want the Fleet to print whenever they need one,” Lewis said, explaining that the Innovation Lab conducts the initial prototyping and testing, and then the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) Additive Manufacturing Integrated Product Team assists with the creation of a technical data package. “That data then gets released to the Marines and Sailors, who have the same printer at their level that we have here.”

A rubber H-1 helicopter seat boot went through this process not long ago, Lewis said, and plans for that are now being used by Marine squadrons to print the part on-site.

“These seat boots were hard to get, so a Fleet Support Team engineer designed one that could be 3D printed,” Lewis said. “Now the Marines are printing them at the squadron level, and they’re being installed on H-1 helicopters.”

All of the items prototyped and produced by the Innovation Lab undergo rigorous review and testing prior to approval and implementation, but the gains in turnaround time still make the 3D printing process faster and more efficient than could be achieved with traditional manufacturing, Lewis noted.

The Innovation Lab is a key component of the ATI Team, and its expanded capabilities help support the team’s focus on developing technology programs and applications for FRCE and the broader NAVAIR enterprise.

“The Innovation Lab is a key tenet in our mission to identify, develop, demonstrate and support the qualification, certification and transition of advanced technology solutions and modern industrial capabilities to improve Fleet Support Team and maintenance, repair and overhaul activities,” said ATI Team Lead Jamaine Clemmons.

Lewis said the lab’s continued development puts the ATI team’s philosophy into practice.

“We are finding applications where we have a deficiency in technology, and then we go out, find a solution and bring it into the lab,” he added.

In putting this new technology to work, Lewis and the Innovation Lab team helped produce about 1,600 parts off their machines in fiscal year 2021. For a program that didn’t exist two years ago, Lewis said, the results have been impressive.

While the Innovation Lab specializes in 3D printing applications, it doesn’t focus its efforts on one specific area – rather, innovations of all sorts are welcome, whether or not the final product ends up as a 3D-printed item.

“Being able to have an environment in which the workforce can imagine, innovate and, most importantly, implement creative solutions within their respective areas of responsibility is the ultimate goal,” Clemmons said.

FRCE is North Carolina’s largest maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical services provider, with more than 4,000 civilian, military and contract workers. Its annual revenue exceeds $1 billion. The depot provides service to the fleet while functioning as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy; Naval Air Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.

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