It is truly remarkable that something as seemingly insignificant as a custom-made cup handle could be responsible for saving thousands of US dollars, but as far as the United States military is concerned, it is not unusual. For example, in June 2016 the United States Navy unveiled the “TruClip”, a clip for handheld radios that Navy personnel aboard the USS Harry S. Truman developed to replace the standard clasps, which were consistently breaking. Repeatably replacing such an albeit small part sums to a significant cost when it has to be ordered from external sources, ergo the development of a 3D printed version, which could be created for circa 6 US cents onboard the vessel, truly saved the American Navy thousands of US dollars, not to mention time.

Now the American Air Force is saving money due to a cup handle among its increasing portfolio of 3D printed objects, most significantly by using 3D printing to modify a standard-issue gas mask into an aircraft oxygen system.

Heating liquids while on board an aircraft requires a special kind of cup that is unusually and borderline frighteningly expensive! In 2016, the 60th Aerial Port Squadron at the Travis Air Force Base of California spent a total of $9,630 on merely 10 of the special cups. In 2018, the price of a single special cup rose to $1,220, with 25 of the special cups to cost a total of $32,000.

Despite it being understandable that one would think that such expensive cups should be virtually indestructible, they are far from this, as the handle breaks off easily when the cup is dropped. Rather than spending thousands of US dollars to replace dropped and broken cups, the squadron decided to investigate how to improve the cup’s handle so that it would break less often.

60th APS passenger operations flight commander and 1st Lieutenant Dennis Abramov brought the problem to an Air Force innovation team known as “Phoenix Spark”. The goal was to create a 3D-printed handle that was stronger than original cup’s handle. 3D designer, printer and Phoenix Spark team collaborator Nicholas Wright worked on designing a new prototype. The new handle’s curved shape and 3D printing’s “layer-by-layer fabrication” make the new handle significantly stronger than the original.

The squadron has spent circa $56,000 to replace broken cups since 2014, which they hope will be greatly reduced by the new design.

The team shared the prototype for the new handle with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Centre at Wright Patterson Air Force Base of Ohio, which is mainly responsible for management of the life cycle management of the Air Force’s weapon systems.

A cup may seem like an insignificant thing relative to all else the Air Force does, but a the Air Force’s special cups are far from monetarily insignificant, and redesigning the handle has enabled the Air Force to better focus on more important things.


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