SAN ANTONIO – Following the unveiling of the Air Force’s Strategic Financing (STRATI) program in March, the 149th Fighter Wing partnered with an innovative startup company to scale additive manufacturing capabilities across the Texas Military Department and Air National Guard.
Of the 21 companies selected for these “big bets,” two were partnered with Air National Guard end-users in the TMD, including the industrial 3D printing solutions company Essentium.
"We stand at the edge of a game-changing technology,” said Master Sgt. Carlos Gil, 149th Maintenance Squadron aircraft metals technician. “It is vital that the investment being made into this partnership be given a tailwind and exposure. We’ve found that using innovative programs like STRATFI, we have the opportunity to build a bridge to the future and become a solution to many problems plaguing the Air Force supply chain worldwide.”
The partnership began in 2019 when Gil was invited to connect with the Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) company during a customer discovery session with TMD end-users, which led to an in-depth exchange of ideas.
The following year, they laid the groundwork for future collaborations and received training on the machinery, which acts as a force multiplier in its ability to design outside the boundaries of formal engineering.
“Finally seeing this idea come to fruition has been extremely rewarding,” said Gil. “I have been a spokesperson for this type of technology for the past five years now. Additive manufacturing capabilities will provide a path forward for quick response and the ability to respond to ideas that improve job performance and warfighting ability.”
The STRATFI initiative was created by Dr. William Roper, the Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, and fueled by the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program. It aims to bridge the “valley of death” startups often face when working to transition the use of their technologies to a program of record.
To achieve this, the SBIR program is matching any funds committed by units investing in the growth of the technology, which attracts venture capital investment into STRATFI SBIR companies from the private sector.
For this project, the TMD secured $7.5 million from the National Guard Bureau during its first innovation competition and a combined $6 million from the Air Force Research Laboratory and Rapid Sustainment Office, which is being matched by the SBIR program.
Essentium also raised $45.5 million from the private sector, which results in a combined $72 million spread across a four-year contract that will bolster the logistical chain and cybersecurity of the company’s machine and "ruggedize" it for expeditionary operations.
The 149th FW was one of the TMD units to receive a 3D printer, with training, materials and support to test the technology for Air Force use.
“We’re uniquely positioned in the Air National Guard to tackle these experimental projects,” said Maj. Caleb Cienski, 149th FW innovation officer. “In addition to having an amazing team of people with diverse personal and professional backgrounds, we’re deeply rooted in our communities and provide a sense of stability and consistency for them as they explore what they’re passionate about. Combine that with a mission application, and we’ll be bringing these new tools to the entire Air Force in no time.”
Harnessing innovative technologies and processes to improve the Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force’s capabilities is a driving force behind how the 149th FW operates.
“Our Gunfighters are some of the most ingenious and creative Airmen, and I’m honored to empower them to explore beyond what we previously thought was possible,” said Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander. “Projects like the one we’re focusing on with additive manufacturing are essential to strengthening and transforming our capabilities and maintaining a competitive edge on the global stage.”
Gil expressed excitement for the future as the wing continues to experiment and test the boundaries of the possible.
“People are the greatest investment with the highest rate of return,” said Gil. “When provided the right tools and opportunity, people will dedicate themselves to being co-owners in anything they put their hands and mind to. Makers will usher in the new era of craftsmanship in the spirit of the Wright brothers going where no one has gone before.”