Houston & Peach

Former Warner Robins grocery store now a high-tech Air Force lab

New high-tech manufacturing facility for Air Force breaks all the rules

The Advanced Technology and Training Center, a partnership between the Air Force and the community to revolutionize manufacturing, utilizes the latest computer modeling to make replacement parts for weapons systems at a fraction of their old costs.
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The Advanced Technology and Training Center, a partnership between the Air Force and the community to revolutionize manufacturing, utilizes the latest computer modeling to make replacement parts for weapons systems at a fraction of their old costs.

The former Publix grocery store in Warner Robins is now serving high tech aircraft manufacturing.

The inside of the brick building on Russell Parkway is full of gleaming new futuristic machinery, like the lab James Bond walks through to pick up his latest spy gadgets. Even the furniture in the lobby looks like it came out of the Jetsons’ house.

The center, called the Air Force Advanced Technology and Training Center, is a satellite operation of Robins Air Force Base and officially opened Oct. 24.

The building is proof that Air Force leaders weren’t kidding when they started talking about 3-D printing, also called additive manufacturing, as a key to keeping the aging fleet flying. Previously 3-D printing had been thought of primarily as something to make prototypes, but now the Air Force is looking at using it to routinely make parts to be used in planes.

Machines that cost over $1 million each are now sitting in about the area that used to be the freezer section. The machines build obsolete metal aircraft parts that can’t be ordered up from a manufacturer, at least not without spending a bundle.

The traditional manner of fabricating a part from scratch, said Maj. Ben Steffens, involved essentially carving it out of a piece of metal, or subtractive manufacturing. That required special tooling to make the specific part, so the set up alone could be time-consuming and shockingly expensive.

In additive manufacturing, a machine measures the part, creates a digital model, then an additive manufacturing machine slowly builds it layer by layer. It’s much cheaper and faster than the traditional method, said Steffens, who works in the Air Force Corrosion Prevention and Control Office at Robins and is now involved in getting the Advanced Technology and Training Center in full operation. He said the new center is crucial to keeping old aircraft flying when parts for it are no longer available.

“Much of the work that has been done on the base has been done in the same method for years and years,” Steffens said. “This equipment, this technology, this material that we are dealing with here is cutting edge and will bring us to the next level as far as keeping our schedule down, keeping our cost low.”

The machines do work slowly. Depending on the size, it may takes days for a machine to build a single part, but Steffens said it could take months to get the same part through the traditional method of going through an outside manufacturer.

The facility is off base for several reasons, but one has to do with getting more young people interested in becoming Air Force engineers.

Russ Alford is the chief engineer of the center, operated by the University of Dayton (Ohio) Research Institute under contract with the Air Force. Until he retired from the Air Force in March, he was chief engineer over C-5s, which are giant cargo planes that are maintained and managed at Robins. Alford said in that job he would hire young engineers from around the country, but after a couple of years or so they would typically want to move back home.

The new center, he said, will offer local high school and college students a chance to tour the center, see the technology in action and even work there as interns, without going through base security. The hope is to generate interest in engineering and potentially have them working at Robins long-term.

“If grandma is here, they stay here, and that’s what we are really trying to do is home grow our own engineering workforce by getting them interested in some of this really cool stuff,” Alford said.

Also, he said, as large as the base is there just isn’t room right now for another big building with the needed parking. Another reason is that being off base allows for quicker software updates by not having to go through the procedures necessary when tied to the base system.

Alford said base engineers will be able to train on the equipment in the laboratory and make parts themselves if they want to, but they can also simply turn over what they need to the center staff to have it made.

The center also has equipment for stripping paint and repainting parts that is more advanced than techniques currently used on base, Steffen said. It will prevent damage to parts and ensure a better, more even coating than traditional methods. The lab also has equipment that will accelerate aging on parts for testing purposes.

The center currently employs about 30 people and may eventually employ about 100. The lab is the second like it in the Air Force. The first is connected with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton.