Missouri Students create 3D Printed Switch Covers for USD 2.2 billion Aircraft

By guest author Bridget Butler O’Neal 3D Print

While you may not need a degree in aerospace to come up with a great idea for fabricating a spare part for a military plane, accessibility to a 3D printer certainly helps—evidenced by recent innovation from the Stealth Panthers robotics team at Knob Noster High School near Whiteman Air Force Base. Their help was enlisted after a malfunction caused an emergency landing in Colorado Springs last October. And while no one flying or riding in the plane was injured, the B-2 bomber itself was suffering issues due to a switch that should not have been flipped, along with other ‘rare’ complications.

Realizing it was too easy for the one switch, on a panel of four, to be inadvertently turned off, the Air Force sought a solution and reached out to the student body near their base in Missouri. They were able to create a 3D printed switch cover to prevent such occurrences in the future. It was a learning lesson for everyone as the students worked with Air Force pilots and engineers to 3D print a prototype and then test it in a flight training simulator, with the new covers to be placed in the Airframe Mounted Accessory Drive near the pilot’s knee.

“The B-2 Spirit cockpit is equipped with state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology, but is a very cramped space, so something was needed to keep the pilots or other items from bumping into the switches,” said Capt. Keenan Kunst, a base spokesman. “The students were able to help us find a solution that was quick, affordable and effective.”

A B-2 Spirit bomber deployed from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, conducts aerial refueling near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, during a training mission Jan. 15, 2019. Students from Knob Noster High School near the base designed a plastic cover for an important switch box inside the B-2 Spirit bomber. The cover now is used in all operational B-2s at Whiteman as well as the aircraft’s simulators. (Photo credit: Russ Scalf/U.S. Air Force)

Not only were Air Force officials able to enjoy seeing the work of the students but they had their eyes opened to the incredible benefits of using a 3D printer to create something that may not have been possible otherwise, and especially not so quickly or so affordably at only USD 1.25 per cover. A good measure of success for the project is obvious too with the switch covers now being installed in every operational B-2 bomber at Whiteman, as well as the simulators like the one they used for initial testing of the part.

Brig. Gen. John Nichols

“Seventy-two hours after the initial design concept, the robotics team 3-D printed a cover for four important switches in the USD 2.2 billion aircraft,” said Brig. Gen. John Nichols, the 509th Bomb Wing commander, in a release to the base.

Having a cover on the switches offers a new and additional fail-safe as switches are only to be used for continuing to enable thrust even when circumstances may require or cause engine shutdown. And, while inadvertent flipping of one switch may be unusual, it could be ‘catastrophic’ if all four were switched at once by accident, since they are responsible for the decoupling of components in the four-engine plane.

“We recognized the switch posed a certain risk of inadvertent actuation and that we should take action to minimize this risk — no matter how small,” Kunst said.

The students have now 3D printed over 30 of the covers, which are formed to fit over the switches with Velcro.

“There’s always that kind of ‘oh no.’ That is a lot of pressure, but I was really happy to know I would have a hand in something that would affect something much larger than me and my town,” said participating junior Gabe Gish in a television interview with WDAF Fox 4 Kansas City.

The students were honoured at a recent base ceremony, and the school district was also awarded a USD 2.25 million grant for robotics and STEM programs from the Department of Defense Education Activity. These types of projects are valuable for all involved, and we continue to follow numerous different student interactions in 3D printing from making jet engine prototypes to creating new concepts for Mars rovers to developing medical devices and so much more.

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