Hill AFB, Weber State partner for maintenance innovation

OGDEN — What do you do if you’re Hill Air Force Base and you need space to troubleshoot a significant F-16 repair issue that won’t interfere with the regular maintenance assembly line?

Call Weber State University, of course.

The Top of Utah’s military complex has teamed up with the area’s higher education system to form a new partnership that allows engineers from Hill to use WSU’s recently established “Concept Center” to research, model and develop solutions for what program officials describe as “singular, one-off” prototyping jobs.

Since September, the base’s F-16 System Program Office has used the university facility to design and build a tool that will be used to fix worn-out, rear-section beams supporting horizontal stabilizers that control the jet’s pitch.

“Basically, we needed to make a tool for a very specific job,” said Mike Shaw, F-16 SPO structural engineer. “The F-16 requires a lot of custom tooling because a lot of times we will do a repair job that’s never been done. We have to figure out how were going to do it. We start at square one.”

The only problem, Shaw says, is that taking the time to tinker with the tool wasn’t exactly realistic at facilities available on base. 

“Other work takes precedent, so it’s not exactly conducive to development or innovation. We needed to find that type of environment,” he said.

“Hill has extraordinary resources to support production,” said Lt. Col. Byron Formwalt, lead process engineer for Depot Maintenance at the Air Force Sustainment Center. “But we wanted to provide some resources for rapid prototyping and then eventually use what is prototyped in that production.”

Engineer Martin Peters furthered that line of thinking by saying Hill’s maintenance arm is expected to produce in mass quantities, not small ones.

“We have resources on base, but they are dedicated to production, which means they do not have the time to develop these singular, one-off prototypes,” he said.

So, at the suggestion of Hill Capt. Chris Benson, the F-16 SPO began working on the repair tool at the WSU Concept Center. Benson had used WSU facilities and worked with Vice Provost for Innovation and Economic Development Alex Lawrence during a separate research project that involved developing solutions to protect and defend against active-shooter scenarios.

The agreement between Hill and WSU, which Formwalt calls a “pilot program,” is valid through next September 2016. It allows up to 10 Hill engineers at a time to use the center’s rapid prototyping capabilities, which includes access to design software, tools, multiple machines and WSU faculty.

“It’s worked out really well so far,” Shaw said. “We’re able to make the protoype here, go test it on the aircraft, work out any kinks, then work on revisions and get it ready for production.”

Shaw said his group has been able to build a tool that will allow maintainers to fix the F-16 beam issue from out in the field. Ordinarily, jets in need of the fix would be flown to Hill’s maintenance depot.

“This saves us a whole lot of time and money,” he said. “By allowing these repairs to be done in the field, we save money by not having to send them to the depot, but we also get them in the air faster. That’s a big deal because these aircraft are needed in theater, they’re needed in training. We need to get them back to the warfighter as quickly as possible.”

Formwalt said he’s unable to discuss the future of the partnership, as negotiations are ongoing, but teams from Hill are already contemplating future projects at the center.

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