By David Bedard
176th Wing Public Affairs
Before he ever put on a uniform, Alaska Air National Guard Airman 1st Class Shawn McDermott, an aircraft metals technician with the 176th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight, had more than 20 years of experience in machining and fabrication.
Raised in Los Angeles County by a father who was a professional motocross bike racer, McDermott took work at a motocross racing team while he was still in high school.
“I started a job sweeping floors and folding catalogs, but I rode pretty well because I was riding since I was 5, and I expressed my goal was to be on their race team,” McDermott recalled. “I wanted to be a racer. I figured motocross would be the most fun thing I could imagine getting paid to do.”
What followed for McDermott was some motocross and drag motorcycle racing, but what stuck, he said, was the skillset he learned working every back shop job necessary to keep the team’s motocross bikes competitive. During his 10 years of working in the outfit, he said a valuable trait he picked up was an ability to learn.
“Being motivated to learn and motivated to do things, I was a real go-getter as a kid, and they saw that,” McDermott said of his employers. “They trained me to do everything in that shop from shipping and receiving to taking bikes apart and (computer numerical control milling) operations and how to blueprint an engine.”
Most recently, McDermott ended a tour working as the 176th Wing representative in Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s Arctic Spark Innovation Lab.
“Ever since I learned about this place, which was shortly after I joined, I have wanted to be a part of it,” he said of the lab. “I needed to totally understand how these things are operating in order to see where to put my effort.”
McDermott took the lab job after enlisting at an older age than is the norm.
“I was about to turn 40 years old, and I heard I could still join the military,” he recalled. “I looked into it and found the Metals Technology AFSC and thought, ‘Oh man, that would be sweet.’”
The Airman thought his experience would be valuable to the Alaska Air National Guard.
“I could actually bring everything I learned to the military and do it for the government,” McDermott said. “It would further my abilities to be effective in the world and to do something for my country.”
Working in a lab bristling with 3D printers and state-of-the-art computer workstations, McDermott said he taught himself how to use the software and put together a class to teach Arctic Spark users from across the base how to use the lab to brainstorm ideas, improve business processes, and prototype parts.
“I took it on myself to maintain all of the equipment and to learn all of the programs they use here, which are a little bit more primitive, a little bit more user-friendly than the industry-standard programs I was taught to use like SolidWorks and Mastercam,” he said.
In the 176th MXS Fabrication Flight, McDermott uses industrial-grade 3D printers, including one that can use an additive manufacturing process with metals rather than the resin used in most machines. Additive metals manufacturing contrasts with traditional subtractive processes like milling excess material out of a billet of steel or aluminum.
McDermott said he has taken what he has learned and passed it on to users of the lab.
“My goal is to teach people to use the software, so they can be innovators in their own departments,” he said. “If I can get at least one person from each squadron down here to see and know what we have, they will have the resources to draw up a CAD program, make a blueprint for a prototype, or further a process because it’s not always about making tangible parts.”
Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Andrukiewicz, 176th MXS Fabrication Flight chief, said he will lean on McDermott to duplicate the success the Airman had in quickly learning the processes to run the flight’s new metal 3D printer and passing what he has learned on to the rest of the unit.
“What we want to do is to keep him out here, to learn it, and then train up everybody else,” Andrukiewicz said.
Both Andrukiewicz and McDermott said service in the Fabrication Flight requires a culture of innovation.
“We can be the best machinists in the world, but if we don’t make new processes, if we don’t shorten the time to approve parts, if we don’t create the right tools to do a better job, if we never innovate, we’re really falling behind even if we’re the best at what we do,” McDermott said.
McDermott said he has to acknowledge multiple facets of his mind in order to innovate.
“I believe there are two parts to you brain: the part that soaks up information like when you’re watching TV, when you’re reading a book, or when you’re being taught,” he said. “Then there’s another part that is totally different that innovates, that creates information.”
Central to McDermott’s growth is his ability to assimilate new experiences and to share that experience with others.
“Learning is what fuels your ability to do,” he said. “l really like to do things, and the more I learn, the more I know what to do and the most effective way to do it.”
From building top-fuel drag racing motorcycles to figuring out how to integrate a new 3D printer into the Fabrication Flight, McDermott detailed the ingredients of being a valuable member of any team.
“Being motivated, being positive, and being excited to bear fruit,” he said. “If you have the will, you can learn how to contribute.”