3D printing wins inaugural 442 FW Idea Sling

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Bob Jennings
  • 442d Fighter Wing Public Affairs

During a commander’s call in August 2022, then-Col. Steve Nester, the 442d Fighter Wing commander, launched the wing’s inaugural Idea Sling contest. The competition was simple. Anyone in the wing with an idea that could impact the unit’s operations, no matter how big or small, was invited to send that idea to Ms. Shallyn Troutman, the wing process manager.

“From the competition, I wanted our wing to develop a pool of ‘local ideas’ that we can work from,” Troutman said, “which is just what happened.”

The ”throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” method generated 50 ideas with impacts ranging from squadron-level to Air-Force-wide. Of those, wing leadership chose five finalists, who presented their ideas at the pre-UTA stand-up meeting on Dec. 2, 2022.

The 442d Maintenance Squadron’s armament flight suggested holding one 4-day “Super UTA” a year so traditional reservists can take care of all their medical appointments and ancillary training at once and have the rest of the year to focus on job qualification.

Senior Master Sgt. Mo Findley from the 442d Civil Engineer Squadron suggested establishing an Air Force standardized approach to simulating positive readings on chemical agent detection paper for training purposes.

Tech. Sgt. Brian Gillespie from the 442d Aircraft Maintenance Squadron suggested adding permanent hanging aircraft canopy covers in frequently-used hangar locations so that, if ongoing maintenance requires an aircraft’s canopy be left open overnight, the cover could be lowered into place to both reduce the fall risk from spreading plastic sheeting over the cockpit, and to protect it from the hangar’s fire suppression foam if the system is activated.

Lt. Col. Thomas Schmidt, the 442 FW Staff Judge Advocate, suggested implementing digital waiting lists for medical or personnel appointments to reduce wait times in the offices and allow traditional reservists to make the most of their limited weekend hours.

Now-Brig. Gen. Nester conferred with Col. Mike Leonas, the 442 FW vice commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Kristoffer Berrien, the wing command chief, and they selected the idea presented by Airman 1st Class Denali Neidig, a crew chief with the 358th Fighter Squadron, as the winner of the Idea Sling.

Neidig, an avid 3D-printing hobbyist, noticed a shortage of some non-flying protective equipment for the aircraft – including plugs and covers for the aircraft wash rack, water intrusion plugs for when the aircraft are not flying, and throttle covers. In fact, in the case of throttle covers, Neidig said there were none in the Air Force supply chain, and currently no contract awarded to make them, should one break. So, he sat down with his 3D-modeling software and technical data and designed one that would fit.

But he didn’t stop there. He began printing plugs and covers for the wash rack that would fit securely in or on places that would normally be covered in single-use tape while the jet is being washed. Not only are Neidig’s prints reusable, but they keep water out better, too.

Currently, crew chiefs use vinyl-coated foam plugs to keep water out of vents and intakes in the fuselage when an A-10 isn’t scheduled to fly. The vinyl covers can tear, though, and the foam beneath can start to deteriorate.

“Through the current supply chain,” Neidig said, “if I needed a single plug from my set of water intrusion plugs, I would have to order an entire set of 6 or 4 plugs. With 3D printing, we only need to print the single plug, that costs less than $15 in total labor, materials, and electricity to print.” Additionally, the plugs can be printed with the aircraft’s tail number embossed on them.

Neidig prints the parts – particularly the ones that need to fit snugly – out of TPU, or Thermoplastic Polyurethane, which is a kind of 3D printing material that combines the durability of plastic with the flexibility of rubber, helping to protect the parts from dropping or crushing damage.

Neidig’s hope is that the wing will acquire a 3D printer and scanner and begin producing parts in-house where practical, and he intends to share his idea – and files – with other A-10 units around the Air Force so they, too, can alleviate some of their supply chain issues.

Aside from wing-wide recognition and the thrill of seeing his idea shape the wing and potentially the entire Air Force, Neidig is to be given a reserved parking spot for a year, a potential incentive flight, and an invitation to Cannon Range near Fort Leonard-Wood, Mo., to watch the A-10s he maintains practice their gunnery.