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445th Reserve Citizen Airmen use 3D printers to solve problems

  • Published
  • By Capt. Rachel Ingram
  • 445th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Three 87th Aerial Port Squadron Airmen currently deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, are using 3D printers to solve operational shortfalls in their spare time. The Airmen are assigned to the 8th Expeditionary Air Mobility Squadron and working in the aerial port during the duty day.

When they have downtime, the trio meets in one of two innovation labs on AUAB to develop 3D printed prototypes and brainstorm new ways to more efficiently accomplish tasks.

“They’re bringing us problems, and there are certain problems that 3D printers can solve, so we’re working on solving them,” said Senior Airman Daniel Schnaars, who lives in Indiana and has taught subjects like computer science and engineering to high schoolers for nearly a decade.

Since discovering the lab and gaining momentum with prototype development, the three Airmen spend time in the lab every single day.

“Sometimes we’ll be in there for several hours at a time, and other times just to pop in and start a print,” Schnaars said.

So far, the Airmen have collaborated to create multiple rapid prototypes, resulting in long-term solutions to real problems Airmen on the base encountered.  

“In our free time, or if we have downtime, we kind of just jump in here or there,” said Staff Sgt. Trenton Westfall, who enjoys inventing things and took classes about modeling and 3D printing back home.

Between missions, the Airmen use the computers in their work centers to draw and model their designs in preparation for printing.

“We are just doing what we can in this six month window,” Schnaars added.

The first problem they tackled was impacting more than 120 Airmen on a daily basis. In one of the dorm buildings, six of the eight showers were unusable due to broken faucet knobs.

“On our floor alone, there are 62 males,” said Staff Sgt. Kirk Laytart. “About half of them work on day shift, and the other half on night shift, so you can imagine the chaos at 6 or 7 a.m. trying to use one of only two available showers. I found that I was having to wake up significantly earlier to be able to get a shower and get ready for work.”

Initially, Schnaars used his squadron-issued multi tool to turn the water on in one of the broken showers, but it wasn’t a sustainable 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 piece, or duplicate an item that’s no longer being produced,” Schnaars said.

The team spent about half of their shift drafting the first prototype. They tested it out 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 wearing down and had to be replaced quickly, but we just considered this part of the field testing process.”

After approximately 35 man-hours of designing, printing, testing and adjusting, the trio landed on the faucet handles now installed in all six previously inoperable showers.

“The shower handles allowed us to return every single shower to operational status. It made a big difference to the 120 people living in the building with the broken showers,” Laytart said.

Following their success with the faucet knobs, 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 every windshield on our 60K loaders was dirty,” he explained.

The vehicles’ washer fluid reservoirs were empty, and because of the inconvenient reservoir placement under the hood, refilling the reservoirs was a time-consuming task, Laytart said.

“The Airmen were meticulously opening tiny bottles of fluid and dumping them in the reservoir by hand-- it took about 20 minutes to refill each reservoir,” Laytart said.

With Schnaars and Westfall, they designed and printed a funneling tool, known as the “fill arm,” with exact dimensions to sit on the engine parts that inhibit reservoir access, and a long arm extending down to the container’s opening.

“It sits right on that shelf,” Laytart said. “No issues, no spillage, no waste, no damage.”

And the fill arm speeds up the reservoir refilling process.

“A once 20 minute job is now a 30 second job,” Schnaars added.

The latest innovation the team worked on was a personal protective equipment holster, tailored for Airmen who work on the flightline. The holsters attach to the utility belt and provide convenient storage of foam earplugs and work gloves.

“This was a problem that our leadership asked us to work on,” said Schnaars.

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 makes design adjustments based on feedback about the prototype, they intend to provide base leadership with the design specifications.

“There’s something really neat about having an idea in your head and then 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.”