How do you improve upon and maintain the most technologically advanced fighter jet in the world? Engineering.
When Joel Jacobson, PE, a senior engineer for NexOne Inc, needed to create a new avionics power panel mounting plate prototype for an F-16 project at Hill Air Force Base, he reached out to the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR).
Through USTAR’s Innovation Center, which is located at the Falcon Hill Aerospace Research Park, Jacobson was able to fabricate the avionics power panel mounting plate prototype more efficiently and at a lower cost than at traditional lab spaces.
“The resources at the Innovation Center are just a huge benefit,” said Jacobson, who was able to schedule time to use the facility’s equipment in just a week of his initial request. “To be able to go from machine to machine like that, in one space, saved weeks of time.”
Wayne Bradshaw, USTAR’s incubation enterprise director, emphasized the center provides unparalleled training and access to specialized equipment that can aid in design and prototyping.
“Access to this type of specialized equipment is either expensive to purchase or requires contracting out the development,” said Bradshaw. “The Innovation Center provides startup companies access to office space, lab space, and equipment at a low cost, which allows them to test and modify prototypes as they prepare to go to market.”
Bret Hadley, 573rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, performs an electronic check out on an F-16 undergoing service life extension program modification on Dec. 20, 2017, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The SLEP is a series of inspections and modifications taking place at one time to extend the aircraft flying service life to 2046. (U.S. Air Force photo by Alex R. Lloyd)
The USTAR Innovation Center serves federal partners, mature companies, startups, and academic institutions alike, providing state-of-the-art equipment and lab space and mentoring to develop technology that is almost ready to take to market.
One of the Center’s features is a OMAX 55100 WaterJet, a tool that uses 55,000 pounds per square inch (psi) of water pressure to cut all types of materials, including metals, composites, glass, ceramics, and stone. Jacobson utilized the WaterJet and the Center’s Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) Mill to prototype the panel he was developing for an aircraft trial vehicle installation for one of the National Guard’s F-16s.
“The simplicity of the WaterJet was great,” said Jacobson. “The features and geometry of the sheet metal piece lent themselves really well to the WaterJet process.”
Having the WaterJet and CNC Mill—which was used for one cut in the project—in a central location reduced the time Jacobson would normally spend working with other machine and equipment shops. Since the project was relatively small in scale, he explained it was easy for the project to get pushed back in other shop’s schedules, extending his time frame to weeks to complete.
The panel mounting plate prototype, which will be used in a new module and system that’s being integrated into the F-16’s current capabilities, is already installed on a test jet.
Overall, Jacobson estimates that he saved four or five times the cost of creating a similar prototype using standard lab equipment. Once he was in the Innovation Center, cutting the panel took just a minute or so on the WaterJet. Jacobson said the experience was so simple not only does he plan to utilize the space again, he already used the space for a second project.
“The potential projects are only limited by one’s ability to design and create,” said Bradshaw about future projects at the center. “Potential clients in the aerospace field are already discussing using the facility to build new interfaces and engines and to perform composite testing."