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Air Force office takes packaging to the next level

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Transporting Air Force and Department of Defense assets like aircraft, munitions, parts, satellites, etc., isn't as simple as throwing them in a box and putting them in the mail. A considerable amount of time and effort is put into making sure the assets are packaged in a manner that keeps them safe during travel and while in storage, in any climate or location.

The Air Force Packaging Technology and Engineering Facility or Packaging Office located here within the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, has been protecting Air Force assets since the early 1960's and is the only packaging engineering group in the service.

Comprised of a highly skilled team of engineers, welders, sheet metal mechanics and machinists, the office has the ability to design, fabricate, test and review protective structures for anything the Air Force wants to transport. In addition the office manages all of the specifications and standards covering Air Force packaging and assists specialists at other locations with packaging Air Force assets.

Every item you transport including the smart phone in your pocket has a fragility rating, which is the amount of shock it can take and still function effectively, according to Robbin Miller, chief of the Packaging Office. Surpassing that level will cause the item to be non-functional.

Understanding physics is crucial.

"All of our engineers are mechanical engineers," said Miller. "So, they understand material properties, shock and vibration forces, structural integrity, and environmental effects on certain metals and materials. We figured out how to understand all of those properties of physics and how to counteract them, eliminate or control them so that these forces do not damage the assets."

The most common asset protection method that the Packaging Office designs are sealed aluminum containers that have shock mitigation and internal cradle systems customized to the asset's size, weight and fragility rating. In addition, the containers have "controlled breathing" allowing a minimum amount of air in exchange over desiccant to absorb moisture, which further protects the asset from the environment.

The Packaging Office has developed specialized protective containers and trailers for many assets including MQ-9 aircraft, KC-135 pods, F-15 canopies, antennas, electronics and NASA satellites, according to Miller.

The benefit of containers and trailers developed by the office is that they are designed for long term use -- many are more than 20 years old -- as opposed to limited use fiberboard and wood boxes that may be damaged after one trip. Long-term storage is also factored into the design of containers and trailers.

"You have to consider storage," Miller said. "Something could be sitting somewhere in a warehouse for ten years. Munitions, in particular, could be stored for many years before they are even used. So we have to make sure that the container has protected them from the elements so that the day they are needed they will operate."

To measure the effectiveness of the protective containers, Miller and team run them through rigorous tests of shocks, vibration and world-wide environmental conditions. Environmental chambers, located at the facility, simulate these conditions.

The Rain, Salt and Fog chamber can produce 5 inches of rain per hour and 40 miles per hour winds.

The chamber is used to test if containers are watertight, Miller said. In addition, because of the possibility of assets being shipped by sea, the chamber also tests the container's ability to resist corrosion in salt-air.

A second chamber exposes containers to temperatures, ranging from -65 degrees Fahrenheit to +180 degree Fahrenheit and up to 92 percent humidity, to verify material performance.

"What we do is a science and an art because it is undetermined what the asset will see during its life cycle in the container," Miller said. "Our goal is to protect assets from damage by simulating conditions its packaging may see throughout the World."