The Air Force’s latest “secret weapon”? A 3D printer

Technology |  2 min. read

Remember the $640 toilet seat?  That was an Air Force purchase, back in the 1980s, for its C-5 transport planes.

That got a lot of attention at the time, none of it positive.  And then, the price went UP.  Five years later, the Air Force paid more than $1800 for a “toilet cover assembly” for the C-5.

But that was then.  Last year, the Air Force paid TEN THOUSAND dollars for just one of those seat covers.

That wasn’t good, and everybody knew it, including the Air Force.  Now though – that really is behind us, as it were – thanks to plastic materials and 3D printers.

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Now instead of buying, the Air Force will be printing.  And a 3D-printed toilet seat cover costs about $300, which might be a lot if you were printing one for the home bathroom – but is a tremendous deal compared to $10,000.

To be fair to the Air Force, the C-5 has been around since the late 1960s.  And while it’s done good work ever since, there hasn’t been a new one built in almost thirty years.  That means replacement parts had to be custom-built – or we should say, it USED to mean that.  Now it’s possible to do that building on a 3D printer, much faster and for much LESS money.

And that’s such a good idea, it’s spreading through the armed forces.  Now the Marines are on board too.  Earlier this year, instead of spending $75,000 for a new door on an F-35 (the do-it-all fighter plane) – because a latch broke on the old door – the Marine engineers printed a new latch for practically no cost at all.

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They didn’t even use a special 3D printer – just the same sort of machine you or I could buy, with the same PETG plastic filament we could use (although most of us don’t need to print anything tough enough to keep a door locked at 1200 miles per hour).

But neither you or I, or the U.S. Marines could use PETG plastic for anything – if it weren’t for petroleum and natural gas.  That’s because PETG (“polyethylene terephthalate, glycol-modified”) like most of the other plastics used in 3D printing, wouldn’t exist without petrochemicals, xylene, in this case.