TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Spending $1,200 on a cup, even one that can heat liquids during flight, may sound a little expensive.
At Travis Air Force Base, California, home to the largest air mobility wing in the Air Force, work is under-way to develop a solution to replace a plastic handle on a hot cup that allows air crew members to heat liquids on aircraft. Unfortunately, when dropped, the handle breaks easily leading to the expenditure of several thousand dollars to replace the cup as replacement parts are not available.
In 2016, the 60th Aerial Port Squadron purchased 10 hot cups for $6,930. The price for each cup surged from $693 to $1,220 in 2018 resulting in a total expenditure of $32,000 for 25 cups. That’s a price jump of $527 per cup which leads to some pricey hot water.
“We started working the hot cup issue in late April,” said Capt. Ryan McGuire, 60th Air Mobility Wing Phoenix Spark chief and a KC-10 Extender pilot with the 9th Air Refueling Squadron.
Phoenix Spark is an innovation program whose mission is to bring tomorrow’s tools to the warfighter today and McGuire has served as the office chief since August 2017. His team of innovators are currently working on 50 projects including the hot cup redesign.
“We have weekly meetings every Friday at noon and our meetings are open forums where Airmen can present problems and potential solutions,” said McGuire. “The hot cup problem was shared with us because the price keeps increasing. Our office was asked to see if we could produce a 3D designed handle that is stronger than the current one.”
1st Lt. Dennis Abramov, 60th APS passenger operations flight commander, shared the hot cup problem with McGuire’s team.
“The cup has two plastic pieces, one on top that helps lift the lid and one on the side,” said Abramov. “The side handle allows someone to hold the cup without burning their hand. Unfortunately, we can’t order replacement parts when the handle breaks, which requires us to purchase a whole new hot cup every time one breaks.”
“After cross talk with our fellow port squadrons across Air Mobility Command, we learned Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, was working on developing a redesigned handle,” said Abramov. “They were considering the 3D printing option. That’s when we brought the issue to Phoenix Spark at Travis to see if we could find a solution.”
With 3D printing, a process where material is joined or solidified under computer control to create a three-dimensional object, plastic handles could be produced that are stronger than the handle now on the hot cup.
Nicholas Wright, a volunteer 3D designer and printer with the Phoenix Spark office, worked on creating the prototype for the new handle.
“The process took us about a week to develop a solution for the hot cup handle from learning the software to figuring how to physically print it,” said Wright. “We talked to air crew members about how they’d like it designed. They recommended a more ergonomic design. The reason for this is because the original handle is placed upside down so aircrews wanted a mix between comfort and strength. We achieved that in about seven days.”
The solution Wright and his team came up with features a curved handle.
“The handle currently on the hot cup has a square bottom which creates a weak point on the handle so any time it is dropped, the handle splits shortly after impact,” he said. “Our new rounded handle reduces that weak point. The handle we designed is stronger and capable of being printed at most Air Force bases.”
One of the reasons the curved handle is stronger, Wright said, is because of the layered printing that’s possible with 3D printing.
“Think of a tree that has multiple layers so it’s extremely strong in multiple directions,” he said. “The new handle has stacked layers with a solid piece around it so it’s similar to the layers of a tree.”
With the new design, the handle is also much cheaper to replace. Over the past three years, the 60th APS has spent nearly $56,000 to replace broken hot cups.
With the new design, the unit could save thousands, said Wright.
“Imagine you have to replace 40 hot cups each year at ever-increasing prices,” he said. “It’s much cheaper for us to replace the handle on 40 cups at about 50 cents per handle rather than purchasing 40 cups for more than $1,200 per cup.”
The prototype for the new handle was shared with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The center is responsible for total life cycle management of Air Force weapon systems.
“They are working through all the processes, quality standards and materials to try and put out a playbook on how we can 3D print the handle so it’s approved to be on an Air Force aircraft,” said McGuire. “Once we get that guidance, we can print the handles at Travis.”
Wright said he’s proud he could make a positive impact on the Air Force mission.
“I’m here to help,” he said. “By being here, I’m supporting a cause I believe in, helping the Air Force save money and man hours. That’s important because if you save money and man hours, you can put those things toward other resources such as research and development, training and readiness.”