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Small innovation saves 31st FW thousands of dollars

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Keith Boudreau, 31st Maintenance Group Air Force Repair Enhancement Program technician, holds a 3D printed spacer he created, Sep. 5, 2019, at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Spacers made by the AFREP technicians repaired 474 phones, saving the 31st Fighter Wing $106,176. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kevin Sommer Giron)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Keith Boudreau, 31st Maintenance Group Air Force Repair Enhancement Program technician, holds a 3D printed spacer he created, Sep. 5, 2019, at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Spacers made by the AFREP technicians repaired 474 phones, saving the 31st Fighter Wing $106,176. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kevin Sommer Giron)

A 3D printed spacer fills a gap in a phone’s receiver, Sep. 5, 2019, at Aviano Air Base, Italy. In 2018, phone receivers  across the 31st Fighter Wing weren’t working, and the 31st Maintenance Group Air Force Repair Enhancement Program created spacers to fix the problem. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kevin Sommer Giron)

A 3D printed spacer fills a gap in a phone’s receiver, Sep. 5, 2019, at Aviano Air Base, Italy. In 2018, phone receivers across the 31st Fighter Wing weren’t working, and the 31st Maintenance Group Air Force Repair Enhancement Program created spacers to fix the problem. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kevin Sommer Giron)

Airmen from the 31st Maintenance Group Air Force Repair Enhancement Program in their workspace, Sep. 9, 2019, at Aviano Air Base, Italy. AFREP technicians have the expertise and jurisdiction to repair a variety of the 31st Fight Wing’s damaged items in an effort to save the wing and the U.S. Air Force money. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kevin Sommer Giron)

Airmen from the 31st Maintenance Group Air Force Repair Enhancement Program in their workspace, Sep. 9, 2019, at Aviano Air Base, Italy. AFREP technicians have the expertise and jurisdiction to repair a variety of the 31st Fight Wing’s damaged items in an effort to save the wing and the U.S. Air Force money. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kevin Sommer Giron)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy. --

Innovators have given people self-driving cars, computers that fit in our pockets and robots that can perform surgery. These products make our lives easier thanks to innovators such as Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and many others.

Innovators can be found around the world, even in the 31st Fighter Wing. Members of the 31st Maintenance Group Air Force Repair Enhancement Program team are such visionaries.

In 2018, units from across the wing were experiencing phone issues. The problem caused an operational security violation that rendered the phones inoperable.

Units initially spent $32,645 on 230 new phones, though it would take more than 76 man hours to program them.

The dilemma finally made its way to the AFREP team.

Although they operate under the 31st MXG, the technicians have the expertise to repair a variety of the 31st FW’s damaged items in an effort to save the wing and the Air Force money.

“We started to see a trend of these phones coming in that required repair but were normally getting disregarded,” said Tech. Sgt. Andrew De La Rosa, 31st MXG AFREP technician. “Because it’s not an aircraft part and there’s no real job description on how to do the repair, we were in a position to open it up and look around.”

The technicians created an alternate solution, and all it took was a piece of cardboard.

The diagnosis showed that a spring in the phone’s receiver had lost its tension, creating a gap in the component. The AFREP team’s solution was to create a spacer hand cut from a thick piece of cardboard to fill in the gap.

Eventually the word spread across the wing that it worked, and an influx of phones needing repair swarmed their office.

Luckily for the team, however, they’d just acquired a 3D printer.

“We thought ‘how can we blend the concept of us being more productive and efficient with this new innovation asset?’” said De La Rosa. “That’s when Tech. Sgt. Boudreau, by scratch, designed the spacer for the phone, and we started 3D printing the templates.”

The shop mass produced spacers with the new technology, maximizing their shops efficiency which, in turn, helped out the wing.

The team demonstrated that repurposing simple materials, such as a piece of cardboard, and having an idea is all it takes to make a huge impact on the wing. The team has repaired 474 phones, saving the 31st FW $106,176 to this date.

“I like taking things apart, seeing how it works and then putting it back together,” said Tech. Sgt. Keith Boudreau, 31 MXG AFREP technician. “I had to manufacture a circuit part from just a piece of paper; that’s not something that I would normally get to do.”

A work environment where Airmen can expand on their ideas may spark innovation. 

 “When I’m told something can’t be done, I don’t accept that,” said De La Rosa. “I say yes it can, we just haven’t figured out how; so I’m always looking for avenues on how to really prove myself wrong. I’m just curious in nature.”

It takes confidence to express an idea; creating a plan, from beginning to end, helps alleviate the possibility of it being shot down.

“You can make someone execute something but you can’t make someone have a great idea,” said De La Rosa. “The more innovation you see, has an impact throughout the base. It can spark other ideas. It’s like a domino effect.”

The 31st FW is always looking for innovators and encourages Airmen to vocalize their ideas to leadership.

Spark Tank is an annual high-profile competition where Airmen get a chance to pitch innovative ideas to top Air Force leadership and a panel of industry experts.

Spark Tank can help put Airmen’s ideas on the forefront of today’s cost-effective modernization effort.

Airmen can submit their ideas through the IdeaScale website. IdeaScale allows Airmen to share ideas, critique submissions, and up vote the most promising solutions. The Airmen with the most game-changing and up-voted ideas then compete at the culminating event.

When Airmen are comfortable enough to think outside the box and express their ideas, it can help better themselves, their units and the Air Force.