Air Force Might Build Innovation Center Near Robins AFB

Robins Air Force Base. (U. S. Air Force file photo by Sue Sapp)
Robins Air Force Base. (U. S. Air Force file photo by Sue Sapp)

WARNER ROBINS -- The Air Force is looking at building an "innovation center" near Robins Air Force Base.

The center could cost up to $40 million, most of it to pay for high-tech equipment to develop prototype aircraft parts.

The center would allow engineers from Robins, local industry and area colleges to work together to speed up the time it takes to make parts for decades-old aircraft. Currently it can take up to two years or more to get a part manufactured.

"We envision an environment where we are able to get parts in half the time that we are today," said Wayne Ayer, technical director of the Air Force Sustainment Center Engineering and Technical Management Directorate.

At the Museum of Aviation on Thursday, Ayer spoke to about 40 people from the base, local industry and colleges about the center. The aim of the event, he said, was to gather ideas about what the center might include.

Among the types of items it would include are 3-D printers that use multiple materials.

The Air Force wants to build one at each of its three maintenance depots. Ayer said that later this year the Air Force expects to have a plan in place to build the centers, which he said could be operational in two to five years.

Questions of exactly how the center would work and who could use it are still to be determined, he said.

Currently when the Air Force needs a part made for an older plane, he said, the request that goes out to industry includes detailed technical data. That data also states the method in which it is to be manufactured. A company could engineer a more modern method, Ayer said, but that is more expensive to the Air Force, which is why it doesn't usually ask a company to do that.

"Many of the parts that we have on our weapons systems are using manufacturing techniques that were developed 60 years ago," Ayer said.

By working with industry to develop modern techniques on manufacturing replacement parts on old airplanes, Ayer said, the Air Force expects to speed up the process and save money.

If the innovation center sounds familiar, something similar already is in the works on a smaller scale. Flint Energies has been spearheading an initiative to start a facility in Houston County to help entrepreneurs develop new products. It is expected to open in a couple of weeks.

Jimmy Autry, spokesman for Flint Energies who was at Thursday's meeting, said the facility the Air Force is planning is far beyond the center that is about to open here.

"There's a broader scale and scope that the Air Force is looking for," he said. "What we have is little brother. This is big brother."

Col. Lee Olyniec, deputy director of engineering at Robins, said the center would be a big help to the base. He said base engineers could have a better idea of what is needed and how a part should be built before it turns to industry for the solution.

The rules for bidding for a job among companies can restrict the collaboration that can take place between the base and manufacturers, Olyniec said. The center would allow the collaboration to take place before bids are sought to manufacture a part, he said.

"This will allow us quicker avenues to see what may work," he said. "You might find areas that fail and have dead ends, but that keeps you from having to work through those dead ends through a long contracting process."

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