News | April 10, 2024

FRCE Materials Engineering Division Boosts Aircraft Performance, Efficiency, Safety

The division consists of approximately 36 personnel who provide crucial maintenance, engineering and logistics support for a wide array of military aircraft. The team of materials and chemical engineers, chemists and technicians utilize state of the art laboratory equipment to perform research, testing and evaluation activities as well as to develop and continually improve the processes in use within FRCE.

“We support all the industrial processes in the depot,” said FRCE Materials Engineering Division Head Robbie Mehring. “We provide lab services that verify materials and processes used in the shops. For example, chemical processing tanks, structural adhesives and metals used for manufacturing critical components are tested here. The lab helps to ensure that we’re putting together a good product for the fleet.”

According to Kevin Aycock, a materials engineer, the team’s efforts are instrumental to the development and validation of maintenance, repair and inspection processes at FRCE as well as the establishment of new capabilities at the depot.

“If the depot is trying to establish a new capability or develop a process, we’ll provide our expertise,” Aycock said. “Because of our testing capabilities here in the lab, we also play an important role in identifying new technologies to bring here.”

The division works closely with FRCE artisans and the depot’s Fleet Support Team (FST), groups of experts who routinely deploy to the fleet to collect data, provide consultation and training, and perform on-the-spot troubleshooting and repair. The division also collaborates with military aviation units as well as original equipment manufacturers.

“The thing I like the most is that we get something new every day,” said Latane Mason, a materials engineer. “This can also be very challenging. Since we support the FST and the depot, we get all the different aircraft, the various systems found on these aircraft and all the depot processes. We may work on electronics one day and hydraulics the next day.”

The division supports aircraft found throughout the U.S. military, including legacy platforms that have been in service for decades. According to Aycock, this presents unique challenges often involving components no longer produced by the manufacturer.

“We assist in identifying a substitute or producing a product that’s either the same or better quality as the original design,” Aycock said. “It’s challenging but I take a lot of pride in this. We’re manufacturing high quality parts and meeting modern requirements using a drawing that is 50 years old.”

According to Mason, military aircraft often operate in environments that pose challenges the team must contend.

“The maritime environment is harsh on all materials,” Mason said. “Polymers may not corrode, but they can degrade over time. Water can be an issue, especially with the moving parts we have on aircraft. You get water trapped somewhere and it can start to develop high concentrations of corrosive ions.”

In order to perform realistic testing that mimics these conditions, Mehring said the lab is equipped to replicate environmental conditions aircraft in the fleet encounter.

“We have salt-fog chambers here to do comparative corrosion testing,” Mehring said. “For example, if there’s a newly developed paint, we can compare it against the legacy paint and see how each holds up. It gives us confidence that a new material will be at least as good, if not better, than the legacy material.”

Testing and analyzing the corrosion and wear of materials is just one of the many processes performed in the lab.

Mason, who performs failure analysis, said materials and components are run through an exhaustive process when they arrive. Because failure analysis often requires cutting the item for analysis, he stressed the importance of photo documentation in his work.

“When we perform the analysis, we want to know exactly how the item came in because we are going to change it throughout our process,” Mason said. “We cut things and take them apart so it is extremely useful to have that original state captured in photos.”

According to Mason, capturing the original state of a part or component involves macro photography performed with a handheld digital camera. Once the item is cut down into a smaller piece, it is can be magnified using a scanning electron microscope.

“At this point, we’re seeing things at up to 250,000 times magnification,” Mason said. “We’ve moved beyond documentation and we’re now analyzing specific features. We can identify things such as the origin or mechanism of a fracture or corrosion. We look for the things the systems engineers need to know so that they can work towards a corrective action.”

In addition to high-powered microscopes, the lab is equipped with a vast array of highly specialized equipment used to analyze the chemical and mechanical properties of materials. Mehring said these sophisticated tools provide the team with the data necessary to fully analyze, test and evaluate materials.

“We have various equipment that can identify the elemental composition of metals or evaluate the properties of different polymers and coatings,” Mehring said. “We have lab areas dedicated to chemical and analytical analysis, oil analysis, metallurgy, polymers and corrosion. We also have the experts who know how to run these machines and get the maximum out of them.”

Lab staff also employ a variety of nondestructive testing methods on materials and components said Mehring.

“Our nondestructive inspection team works to develop methods and procedures that can be executed in the fleet or here on site,” Mehring said. “It’s crucial work that can identify potential issues. This work is vital in the development of how inspections are conducted and written into instructions.”

The team also plays an important role in the development and review of manuals and repair procedures. Aycock said the team works closely with FST engineers to conduct materials engineering reviews which are crucial when writing or updating repair manuals.

“Our subject matter experts review all of those manuals for their applicable process,” Aycock said. “We’re making an impact that benefits the entire Navy when it comes to developing repair procedures.”

Mehring cited the close working relationship his team enjoys with departments throughout FRCE as well as partners outside of the depot as instrumental to the division’s success.

“We don’t do anything in a vacuum,” Mehring said. “We work closely with our customers and almost every department here at the depot. There’s a lot of interaction, communication and collaboration that goes on behind the scenes.”

While the Materials Engineering Division is involved in wide a range of projects, Mehring said that the focus is always on providing capable, high-quality aircraft to the warfighter.

“The cool part of the job for me is knowing the impact my team has on the fleet,” Mehring said. “They are enhancing and ensuring the safety and performance of our aircraft. They support standing up new capabilities important to the future of the depot and the Navy. Whether in those capacities or running an urgent analysis to get an aircraft back up in the air, it’s an honor knowing that we have supported these efforts."