Hill pilot program adopted, expanded across Air Force

No one with a career in the military would ever compare it to Silicon Valley, where outside-the-box thinking, flexibility, collaboration and “creative spaces” are the norm. 

The Air Force Sustainment Center is hoping to change that, in part because of a successful pilot program that began at Hill Air Force Base. 

The Hill program, termed the “Rapid Innovation Complex” was established in 2015 to promote innovative maintenance and research partnerships with industry and government.

The initial phase of the program was a partnership between the Hill and Weber State University’s Concept Center. Air Force Engineers needed to improve a unique tool for replacing the horizontal stabilizer on F-16s. The space to work on the tool didn’t exist within the Ogden Air Logistics Complex, so the Air Force reached out to Weber State. 

“The Ogden Air Logistics Complex has extraordinary resources to support production,” said Lt. Col. Byron Formwalt, lead process engineer for depot maintenance at Hill’s Engineering and Technical Management Directorate. “But we wanted to provide some resources for rapid prototyping and then eventually use what was prototyped in that production.”

The agreement between Hill and WSU runs through 2016 and allows up to 10 engineers to use the center’s rapid prototyping capabilities, which includes access to software, tools and a variety of manufacturing machines at the university’s concept center. Because of the partnership, the engineers were able to complete the tool prototype, which allows for field repairs on the F-16, saving depot maintenance time. Since completing the tool, engineers have completed three other projects at the WSU center.

Now, the Air Force Sustainment Center, headquartered at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, wants to partner with local governments, business and academic institutions surrounding its three air logistics complexes — in Utah, Oklahoma and Georgia — to create dedicated facilities called “Innovation Centers” at which a collective workspace will foster the team building, creative thinking and problem solving common in high-tech industries.

The initiative isn’t simply an attempt to attract millennials entering the workforce. 

Ideally, the centers will provide the Air Force something its warfighters desperately need — agile support, said Wayne Ayer, technical director for Air Force Sustainment Center’s Engineering and Technical Management Directorate. 

To encompass its vision for the innovation centers, AFSC is using the term “agile manufacturing,” which includes: agile sourcing, advanced robotics, additive manufacturing, including rapid reverse-engineering and post-processing to test and qualify products.

These capabilities are seen as essential to the future of aircraft maintenance because agile manufacturing allows maintainers to reduce surplus parts and create the unique “one-off” parts and tools needed to maintain an aging aircraft fleet.

There is a near- and long-term vision. AFSC is looking for a for innovation centers that are still viable 20 years in the future, with the space and resources to support evolving technology. The Air Force may be flying aircraft that are 70 years old, but can’t continue to use 70 year old maintenance practices, said Ayer.  

“Ideally, the innovation center vision is for an environment where government, industry and academia communicate our collective needs and solve problems by fostering an environment for innovative solutions,” said Ayer.

The innovation centers wouldn’t only benefit the Air Force. They would be resources for educators and small business. 

“These will be off-base, collaborative environments for local small businesses that don’t normally have access to the equipment. The innovation in this country really comes from small business and academia,” said Ayer. “The local technical colleges can have their hands on the latest manufacturing processes so we can have the engineers we need in the future. … It would be a high-tech environment for hands-on internship opportunities.”

The Air Force Sustainment Center recently set a goal to accelerate standing up innovation centers at its three logistics complexes. In order to do this, partnership symposiums have been scheduled at the installations to share the needs of each logistics complex with local industry, government and academic organizations. 

Hill AFB hosted its partnership symposium March 11.

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