The U.S. Air Force is 3D printing replacement handles for broken coffee cups. Why? Not for fun. it’s printing the handles to avoid buying new cups at a cost of $1,210 each.
The cups in question are metal cups designed to work with larger Air Force aircraft where crews work in pressurized areas—think cargo planes and aerial refueling aircraft. Air crews, such as the KC-10 Extender refueling boom operators above, routinely fly in bad weather and turbulence and might have to stay at their stations for hours on end. These airmen can’t use just any coffee cup. As a result, the Air Force uses steel cups with a hinged lid, plastic handle, and a heating element built right into the cup. The cup is plugged into a charging station where it keeps a hot beverage hot.
A self-heating coffee cup is a nice morale-builder for air crews, but it comes at a price. The mugs, when dropped, sometimes break their black plastic handles. The Air Force can’t order spare handles, so it has to buy a a new cup—at the staggering cost of $1,210 each. In 2018, the Air Force is spending $32,000 just to buy 25 new coffee cups. Yes, it’s ridiculously expensive and yes, you could probably find a cheaper replacement somewhere else but for now, within the Air Force’s bureaucracy, this is the item that is certified for use in Air Force aircraft.
Now, airmen at Travis Air Force base in California are using 3D printing to print up new replacement handles. Phoenix Spark, an Air Force program meant to apply cutting edge technology to everyday problems, is printing the handles to refit them to broken mugs, potentially saving the Air Force tens of thousands of dollars.
Phoenix Spark redesigned the cup’s handle, replacing the square bottom with one better capable of resisting breakage. It printed the part in a manner similar to the rings of a tree, with a solid core supported by thinner layers on the outside for increased strength. It also made the handle more ergonomic, making it more comfortable to carry. The result is a more durable, more useable, and cheaper part.
The next stop for the new design is the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where the service is evaluating the part and process used to make it. The 3D printed part must be certified for use on Air Force aircraft, but after that Phoenix Spark is free to spin up its printers and crank out the parts like hotcakes.