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U.S. Air Force Base Upgrades to Robotic Paint Stripping

Corrosion control technicians with the 576th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron monitor two media blast robots as they strip paint off an A-10 aircraft at Hill Air Force Base. Photo by Todd Cromar, U.S. Air Force.

The 576th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron (AMXS) at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, USA, is upgrading its traditional process for manual media blast paint removal by utilizing new-generation robots, which strip the paint from A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. These aircraft are routinely at the base for depot overhaul and maintenance.

According to site officials, all aircraft require exterior maintenance to protect their metal surfaces from corrosion—which can occur due to moisture and the harsh environments in which they continually operate.

The new process is aimed at reducing the manhours it normally takes to strip paint from the aircraft, as well as improving safety by removing employees from the blasting atmosphere. Officials also expect it to save time and costs.

“There are going to be across-the-board improvements, including a dramatic reduction in exposure to a hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)) dust environment,” says Tim Randolph, director for the 576th AMXS. “This is perhaps the greatest benefit to the robotic system. Savings will also be seen with reduced operating time and less power consumption, as well as reduced costs in material. We really haven’t found a downside to this system.”

James Gill, corrosion control flight chief for the 576th AMXS, explains that while the traditional manual media blast process is effective, it is also labor intensive. In most cases, it requires teams of workers at least three full days to complete.

By contrast, the new paint removal process is accomplished by two robots, each with four hose attachments that move independently along both sides of the aircraft. In addition, the time to strip an A-10 is decreased from three days to 12 hours or less.

“Compared to the manual paint stripping method, the robots use half the amount of blast media at half of the air pressure, while removing an extremely precise thickness, uniformly, across the entire aircraft surface,” Gill says. “This translates into a process that is less stressful on the aircraft skins and saves money in media cost, while creating only half the waste stream.”

In addition to the robotics process, a new laser burn process is currently being tested and used on F-16s with proven success. However, the squadron is still maturing the process, and hopes to apply this process to the A-10s in the future.

By using new robotic technology, the squadron says it is expanding its capacity by adding capability. Randolph says each of three processes have different capabilities and inherent limitations, but when combined, can reduce the total time an aircraft spends in depot maintenance and helps return it to the warfighter faster.

Source: U.S. Defense Video Imagery Distribution System, www.dvidshub.net.