b1 bomber, 3d scanning

Wichita State University/Dassault

  • Students at Wichita State University are completely disassembling a B-1 bomber and UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter to create a library of 3D scans.
  • The idea is to eventually be able to 3D print replacement parts for the aircraft.
  • The process promises to make repairs quicker, especially for older aircraft.

    Students at Wichita State University are working with the U.S. Air Force to dismantle, catalog, and 3D-scan every inch of a strategic bomber and a transport helicopter.

    The mission: Build complete digital libraries of every single part that makes up a B-1 bomber and UH-60L Blackhawk helicopter, paving the way to print replacement parts from those libraries. The idea promises to revolutionize the way the Pentagon procures replacement parts—and keeps warplanes combat-ready.

    Wichita State’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR), in partnership with Dassault Systèmes, borrowed a mothballed B-1B Lancer bomber from the Air Force. The strategic bomber traveled 1,000 miles from “The Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona to Wichita, Kansas. The university also borrowed a U.S. Army UH-60L Black Hawk from Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas.

    b1 bomber, 3d scanning, printing

    B-1B tail #85-0092 awaits disassembly inside WSU-NIAR’s Aircraft Structural Test and Evaluation Center (ASTEC).

    Wichita State University/Dassault

    The next step is for students to completely disassemble both aircraft, one piece at a time. Each and every part, down to the bolts that hold the airframes together, is catalogued into a virtual library and then scanned into a 3D CAD rendering. The B-1 bomber project started in January 2020 and should take approximately 6 years to complete. The Black Hawk project, meanwhile, started in May and should only take two years to complete.

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    Why tear down a complete aircraft just to scan the parts? Under the current system, the Pentagon buys spare parts at the time the aircraft is in production. However, the average U.S. Air Force aircraft is 30 years old, which often stretches beyond the originally expected service life. As aircraft fleets age, spare parts reserves run dry and original equipment manufacturers go out of business, creating a crisis in sourcing critical parts.


    A UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter is loaded at Corpus Christi Army Depot in preparation for its trip to Wichita State University’s National Institute of Aviation Research (NIAR).

    Wichita State University/Dassault

    NIAR hopes that some day, the U.S. military could maintain complete “digital twins” of aircraft in service, or libraries of 3D scans of every single part that makes up the aircraft. Instead of buying thousands or even millions of spare parts at the time of production, the Air Force could keep digital twins on hand. If maintainers need spare parts, they could simply contact a local manufacturer, send them the CAD file, and have them print the parts.

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    Take the B-1, for example. The bomber originally entered service in the mid-1980s, and the entire fleet is anywhere from 33 to 37 years old. (The particular bomber the students are disassembling, tail number 85-0092, was built in 1985 and mothballed in 2002.)

    The Air Force has reduced the original fleet of 100 B-1s to just 62 planes, and cannibalizes mothballed bombers to keep the remaining planes in operation. The ability to call up spare parts on demand could make for faster, cheaper repairs for older planes like the B-1, keeping more of them flying.

    Wichita State and Dassault are using the Lancer and Black Hawk to explore the viability of these digital libraries. The next step might be creating libraries as aircraft roll off the production lines and updating them throughout the lifetime of the aircraft as they gradually receive upgrades and other improvements.

    blackhawk, 3d scanning, 3d printing, wichita state

    A partially disassembled UH-60 Black Hawk fuselage inside the Aircraft Structural Test and Evaluation Center (ASTEC) at WSU-NIAR.

    Wichita State University/Dassault

    Through the NIAR project, air forces will be able to design aircraft-specific maintenance schedules based on actual usage and “create 3D visualizations showing stress/damage on airframes of an overall fleet and (eventually) specific warplanes,” according to Wichita State.

    Digital libraries can even help keep track of approved maintenance procedures. Today, the Air Force might be forced to manually remove paint from a particular part instead of using a faster laser removal because it doesn’t know how that part might react to laser light. Not only can a library chronicle specific parts, but it can also record how to safely and properly handle them.

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