How Advanced Manufacturing is Keeping F-35 Pilots Off the Ground and in the Skies

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VT-CIMS™

The Modern Battlespace recently spoke with Arthur De Ruiter and Dustin Vagedes of Collins Aerospace, about the incredibly innovative and futuristic helmets utilized by F-35 pilots. In that conversation, both expressed just what makes their helmet and more specifically, their production techniques so unique as well as sharing how solutions like VT-CIMS™ will contribute to the future of the battlespace.

As Arthur De Ruiter explained, with the helmets worn by F-35 aviators, “…all the flight and mission data is presented to the pilot on a display mounted to the helmet,” and that the helmet, “…is connected to six infrared cameras located around the aircraft, providing a 360-degree view and an unprecedented situational awareness.

Consequently, De Ruiter and Vagedes also explained that this level of sophistication can create unique challenges when things like visors and padding need to be replaced as a result of wear and tear. While simple parts replacement is a process that can be done in-theater, any changes or maintenance that require more than a simple replacement part requires a unique scanning and milling process that requires the pilot to be on-site at a Pilot Fit Facility, typically in the US.

In the second part of our two-part conversation with De Ruiter and Vagedes, we discuss a revolutionary scanning and subtractive manufacturing solution that can enable these more complex repairs in-theater and increase the readiness of our military aviators

The Modern Battlespace (TMB): What technology have you developed to expedite the F-35 maintenance process? We’ce discussed the VT-CIMS™ solutions a bit but could you dive a bit deeper for us? 

Arthur De Ruiter: Collins Aerospace has created an innovative mobile scanning and fitting service. It allows our field services teams to go to any base in the world to support the warfighter. The VisorTrim–Custom Insert Milling System (VT-CIMS™) is the backbone of our mobile scanning and fitting solution.

This in-house solution allows our teams to regularly update and improve processes… that were otherwise hindered by travel restrictions as a direct result of the global pandemic.” – Dustin Vagedes

Dustin Vagedes: Yes, the creation of the VT-CIMS™ marks a very exciting advancement in the scalability, versatility, affordability, and capability objectives of the program. The system is comprised of a high-resolution, colorized, self-calibrating mobile hand-held scanner.  It reduces floor space requirements by combining liner and visor milling capabilities into a single and more robust Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) machine. Updated software provides hot-spot prediction and the ability to revise custom liners in real-time.

This in-house solution allows our teams to regularly update and improve processes and analyze unique human biometric data, from anywhere around the world. The VT-CIMS™ mobile scanning and milling capabilities have already proven this value by accommodating remote fittings around the globe, that were otherwise hindered by travel restrictions as a direct result of the global pandemic.

TMB: How do scanning and milling new visor and helmet pads in theatre help expedite the process? How much more quickly can a visor or helmet liner be replaced, and a pilot be back up in the air utilizing technology like VT-CIMS™?

Arthur De Ruiter: Our innovative mobile scanning and fitting process can be performed in a few days for multiple pilots, and at the customer premises, providing extreme flexibility. Upon the customer’s request, Collins Aerospace sends a team of one or two field-service fitters, depending on the number of pilots needing to be refitted.

“Our solution allows for repurposing surplus helmets… a very expensive asset sitting on a shelf. Helmet refitting represents a huge cost saving for the military.” – Arthur De Ruiter

Luckily, most pilots spend their time in the simulator, so we plan our scanning activities around their scheduled simulator sessions. After a short in-take interview, we perform a mobile head scan of each pilot, using a very high-definition hand-held scanner. This process only takes three minutes per pilot, so it is extremely quick and efficient.

The scanned pad files and visor trim data are then sent electronically to one of our global depots for trimming and milling, where we have all the raw materials readily available. After manufacturing the visor and pads within the same or next day, we send the materials back to the customer for a final fitting, via express courier or other similar means. Upon arrival, our team completes the fitting process of the new parts while still onsite. Or, we can provide the necessary training to the life support equipment teams to perform the final fitting themselves. New visors are trimmed to maintain proper clearance from the oxygen mask.

Also, our solution allows for repurposing surplus helmets. Some pilots move into non-flying staff positions, and their helmets become available as surplus, possibly becoming a very expensive asset sitting on a shelf. Helmet refitting represents a huge cost saving for the military.

TMB: VT-CIMS™ is an exciting subtractive manufacturing application for the Air Force. Do you see the potential for other additive and subtractive manufacturing solutions to make their way to the tip of the spear? How could these advanced manufacturing solutions be utilized in theatre to increase military readiness and operational efficiency?

Arthur De Ruiter: Collins Aerospace has global depots and field services teams that work together. However, in case a customer would like to be completely self-sustainable, we can either offer to do a complete depot stand-up at the customer’s location or create a transportable fly-away kit solution – to include a mobile scanner with depot milling support from Collins Aerospace, or pre-trimmed consumable materials like pads and visors, etc — to have the capability available in-theatre.

“Additive manufacturing processes have transformed the way we seek and provide solutions… organic, scalable subtractive and additive manufacturing… presents many opportunities for reduced cost and increased capabilities.” – Dustin Vagedes

Dustin Vagedes: Working on a team with hundreds of combined years of experience across all different branches of military aviation life support systems covering multiple platforms, it has been nothing short of mind-blowing to see how the advancement of technology directly contributes to pilot safety and the situational awareness a modern HMDS now provides.

Additive manufacturing processes have transformed the way we seek and provide solutions to the world in ways we couldn’t have even imagined only a short time ago.  Having organic, scalable subtractive and additive manufacturing implemented across the US armed forces presents many opportunities for reduced cost and increased capabilities to include carrier-based locations around the world.

As technology continues to evolve and become increasingly mobile, there will be more and more opportunities to incorporate these solutions together.  Cost and capability issues that have previously made the technology out of reach are being overcome and will likely change the landscape for the warfighter in the near future.

TMB: Could the scanner be used for more than just the F-35 helmet ­– fitting any helmet or perhaps something other than helmets – flight suits, for example?  If so, please explain.

Arthur De Ruiter: Our scanning solutions can be used for a variety of applications where pilot fit is critical. Flight helmets other than the F-35 are the obvious choice since this is an adjacent market we know well. However, full-body scans can also be done, and that data can then be used for flight suits, instead of using an old-fashioned measuring tape. So, it would definitely be more productive. We are really just seeing the tip of the iceberg here.

Dustin Vagedes: I agree: While we can’t dive too much into our future applications of this technology, we are looking at developing and applying our capabilities to existing and future systems in a similar manner to showcase the value we can bring to other programs and products that would benefit our customers.

For more information on the Collins F-35 Mobile scanning solution and VT-CIMS, click HERE.

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A communications and marketing expert with more than a decade of experience. Ryan has edited and contributed to multiple popular online trade publications focused on security, satellite, unified communications and network infrastructure. He serves as the executive editor for The Modern Battlespace and the GovHub family of publications. In addition, he serves as the executive editor of the Government Satellite Report and the Data Centers Today online publications.