NAVAL AIR WARFARE CENTER AIRCRAFT DIVISION, PATUXENT RIVER, Md.–There’s an old joke at the United States Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) that students spend half their day in class, half their day flying — and the third half writing reports. To help them save some of their precious time, the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division’s (NAWCAD) Innovation Hub (iHub) recently joined forces with USNTPS to fabricate a bracket that allows students to install test gear more quickly in aircraft cockpits. Not only that, the iHub’s rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing capabilities enabled the mounts to be produced in less time and at a lower cost than commercial vendors.
Located across from the base theater at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, the iHub’s modern, bright and open facility features well-equipped maker spaces with a wide variety of computer-controlled and networked fabrication tools, a collaboration space with TV walls and white boards, a “digital sandbox” with tools that allow engineers to play with data in unique ways, a comprehensive technical library and much more. Situated under NAWCAD’s Chief Technology and Strategic Operations office and funded entirely by NAWCAD, the iHub is designed to foster innovation and inspire collaborations that together spur timely improvements to naval aviation’s readiness, responsiveness and lethality.
“We’re here to help you turn your ideas into actual products,” said Andrew Koch, an engineering psychologist who serves as the iHub’s point person for virtual and augmented reality and robotics systems. “We offer the resources, tools, training, and assistance to facilitate your projects.”
One such recent project was the brainchild of Army Maj. Chris Dudley, a student in USNTPS Class 160 who designed an ingenious bracket for attaching a reel of measuring tape to a cockpit bulkhead — a simple but rugged tool that students use to gauge the range of movement in an airplane’s control stick or a helicopter’s cyclic control in flight, which they need to calculate as part of their final flight-test exam in order to graduate.
“For our capstone exercise, we have to conduct a test flight in an aircraft that we’ve never flown before,” Dudley explained. “We may only have access to the aircraft for three or four hours, and if you have to spend an hour rigging up the measuring equipment in an unfamiliar environment, then you’re chewing up at least 25% of your available time before you even get into the evaluation. I thought that a standardized way to mount the measuring device securely would allow me to use the available time more efficiently while also improving safety.”
Dudley used his engineering skills to design a universal mounting bracket on his computer and fabricate the components on his personal 3D printer in time for his capstone flight. Following the flight test — which, by the way, he passed — Dudley showed his prototype and the digital design drawings to his instructor, Lt. Cmdr. David Rozovsky.
“A few things immediately stood out to me about Chris’ design,” Rozovsky said. “Typically people will design something for a particular environment, but he incorporated enough flexibility in the design to allow it to be used in a multitude of different aircraft.”
Recognizing the potential benefits of Dudley’s design, Rozovsky and the other instructional staff decided to produce enough kits to supply future classes with them. But where to turn for the manufacture of the bracket kits?
“If you bought a system like this from a commercial vendor, it would cost thousands of dollars and require us to go through a lengthy contracting process,” Rozovsky said. “Whereas using 3D printing, you’re looking at tens of dollars and a matter of hours or days to accomplish something with the same level of precision. It seemed like a natural project for the iHub.
USNTPS staff had previously worked with the iHub on several small fabrication projects, but this was the most complex project the school had approached them with by far. Even so, it proved to be a good fit with the iHub’s capabilities.
Rozovsky emailed Dudley’s computer-aided design files to Russell Gilbert, a mechanical engineer who handles engineering and prototyping at the iHub. Gilbert used modeling software called SOLIDWORKS to print out the kit components to ensure they fit together and worked within the desired design tolerances. “SOLIDWORKS modeling allows us to capture all of the geometry and dimensions of parts,” Gilbert explained. “Depending on the size and complexity of the design, a project can go from idea to SOLIDWORKS design to final printing in as quickly as a day.”
In less than a week, and at no cost to the school, the iHub printed out dozens of copies of Dudley’s bracket kit, which USNTPS picked up and distributed to the students in Class 161 in plenty of time for their capstone test flights.
Rozovsky noted that the bracket kits are designed to be reusable, and should additional kits or replacement parts ever be needed, the iHub can produce them quickly from the available design files. “Thanks to the iHub, we had a solution before we ever had a problem,” Rozovsky said.
For Koch, it’s all in a day’s work for the iHub. “If you have trouble making something work,” he said, “we’re the place to be.”