Whether they're learning how advanced aircraft parts work, or studying to be able to identify an improvised explosive device, they need actual physical models to work with. Models that can cost millions.
Major Wes Adams says "If we were going to teach students how the gearbox of a jet engine works, it's very difficult to conceptualize on a dry erase board, where you'll have to draw, capture, erase, reanimate, capture erase."
That's where SAFB's four 'Fused Deposition Modelers', or FMD's, come in. These machines, commonly referred to as 3d printers in the private sector, can take ordinary plastic and "print" literally anything an instructor can imagine. From bombs and mortars, to large munitions.
And even replacement parts for a full scale unmanned aircraft called MQ9 reapers.
An MQ9 reaper model was what the head of the FDM department, WG-10 Dan Anderson and the other engineers were cooking up the day we were there to check out the process. A crashed reaper would cost over 2 million dollars of taxpayers money to fix with conventional methods. Sheppard's FDM machines can do it for around two hundred thousand.
So how does it work?
First, an engineer scans in the part that needs to be replicated. This scanner can be brought out into the field to scan objects that are hard to come by.
"These are of particular importance when we start talking about recognition of unexploded ordinance," said Adams.
Think about it. When a soldier finds an explosive device out in the field, their job is to dispose of it, usually by detonating it, which makes it incredibly hard to study. However...
"If you can capture one, if you can get it to us safely, or if you can even provide us with photographs, we will reverse engineer it, plug it into this computer system and people like Dan Anderson here will help engineer it, make it fabricate from these machines," said Adams
After an engineer scans in the item, they send it to Anderson, where he checks it out to make sure there are no holes or incomplete sections. Then he arranges where the parts will be built inside of the machine to best allow airflow for the hot plastic.
Dan Anderson says "It also lets me know how long it will take to build a particular part, so I can go ahead and plan for how many days this will take to build."
Finally, it's time to press the big green "build" button. A spool of plastic is heated up by the machine head and extruded out into a thin thread that is layered up piece by piece, stopping only to occasionally clean the printer head. It could take a couple of hundred hours.
A second head adds a scaffolding of sorts.
"The support material is a sugar base and it dissolves readily, but it's also very hard so that it can hold up the model plastic when it's being built," said Anderson.
Once the item is finished, it is removed from it's plastic tray.
"Just pick up gently on the part. It just separates as easy as that. If it sounds like Velcro when it's peeled off, it means it's doing just right, " Anderson said.
Then the part is submerged in a solution which is heated to 150 degrees in order to strip the support material from the item.
"This is also biodegradable and it's completely harmless. It's a sodium base that reacts with the sulfur and it just dissolves it over time.>, said Anderson.
The part is now set aside in a designated area to dry before getting sent off for the final step: an ultra realistic paint job.
So how great would it be if we could all have one of these machines in our homes? Well guess what? You can.
Makerbot industries is offering a similar machine for home use for just under 1,500 dollars fully constructed. You can even by a cheaper, incomplete version, and have the machine print the rest of its parts.
And if you don't feel up to modeling your own parts, Thingiverse.com offers schematics on hundreds of day to day items that have been provided by the public. These schematics are all free of charge.
Eric Crosslin - Newschannel 6