Industry News

U.S. Air Force Unveils New Coatings Application Booth

A next-generation coatings application booth for F-35 Lightning II aircraft at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is nearly complete and scheduled to begin operations by October 2017.

This represents the first in a series of three planned coatings application booths for the U.S. Air Force. As part of a multi-year, collaborative project with multiple stakeholders from across the Air Force, U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), government, and industry, these facilities are aimed at enabling safer, cheaper, and sustainable energy efficiency.

“The F-35 is a huge program for the Air Force, and planning sustainment is important. It’s important to get it right,” said David Madden, program manager of the advanced power technology office (APTO) at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) materials and manufacturing directorate.

“The F-35 program office came to us and asked for help in designing a cutting edge, state-of-the-art, energy efficient, and environmentally friendly facility,” Madden added. “We worked with a lot of partners on this — scientists, maintainers, process teams — from across government, academia, and industry to make sure everything was right in design. We are excited about the upcoming testing.”

The F-35 Lightning II series, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, is a family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth fighting aircraft. The fifth-generation combat units are designed to perform both ground attack and air defense missions.

Development of New Booths

The new booths are designed for the application of aircraft coatings, which are critical to an aircraft’s operational life. These coatings can provide both heat resistance and corrosion protection on a platform.

According to the Air Force, the typical application of coatings can be very costly in terms of energy consumption, environmental impact, and safety needs to ensure the health and protection of maintenance staff. Additionally, as an aircraft ages, older coatings need to be removed and replaced. That process that can use considerable amounts of energy.

To address this, during the early stages of booth research and design, a significant amount of time was dedicated to consulting with maintainers as well as environmental and technical experts to collect data to help identify and understand specific logistical needs of the F-35 depot teams.

According to Madden, the overall goal of the project is to maximize the use of commercial technologies, automation, and initial investment to reduce lifecycle maintenance costs over a longer period.

One way this was accomplished was through a project that modeled airflow and circulation. Analysis led to the development of an air recycling process, which reduces the energy cost typically associated with the coating process. By recirculating up to 70 percent of the air in the booth, it is estimated the Air Force can save more than $330,000 in energy costs each year.

“When coating an aircraft there’s a lot of spray and overspray that occurs, and a constant flow of air crosses a work area to take the excess spray away,” Madden said. “Typically, ‘new’ air is forced through the booth to remove the harmful particulates.”

How the Process Works

“Using sophisticated computer modeling, our team was able to show on a simulation the pattern of air flow,” Madden explained. “We then developed an airflow approach that is able to filter out the particulates and reuse the air, saving all kinds of energy typically associated with conditioning new air. Bioenvironmental engineers evaluated the models and determined that the models were good — this is safe.”

Another novel aspect of these booths is the use of sensor automation for data collection and metrics. The Air Force believes these tools will enable long-term improvements and savings, not only at the Hill base, but across its entire operations.

“Extra flow meters and additional sensors have been included in this booth that may, for example, be able to calculate the amount of energy used per gallon of paint sprayed or measure how much electricity is used for each aircraft completed,” Madden said. “We can then use these different ratios from the sensor metrics to determine which are the most meaningful. In this way, we could develop production efficiency metrics that can be compared with traditional booth operations across the Air Force.”

Potential for Robot Use

The new booths also take into account future robotic capabilities and are designed with enough space and clearances to enable the addition of automated technologies for coating applications.

“Rather than trying to fit the most we can in a minimum amount of space, we thoughtfully designed the booth with enough space to be able to add robots at a later date,” Madden said. “Through automation, we would be able to move the operator out of the paint area and into a conditioned control booth. This would eliminate the need for excessive personal protective equipment and provides a much safer work environment. Robots are a possible way of the future.”

By using advanced mechanical systems, sensors, and energy efficient technology, the new booths provide an organic capability to Air Force maintainers that officials believe will yield millions of dollars of energy savings over the lifecycle of these platforms.

“The APTO team is known across DoD for its expertise in facilitating energy efficiency projects,” Madden said. “This was a great team collaboration, and we’ve created an organic capability for the Air Force.”

For more information, contact: Air Force, (703) 697-3039,