Engineers inspecting an aircraft landing gear on a jet fighter.

3D printing is finding significant adoption in the aerospace industry, considering its need for complex parts and lightweight components with consistent quality and repeatable characteristics. The technology also makes the supply chain more efficient, as it reduces material, money, and time for the production process of both commercial and defense aircraft.

Researchers with RMIT University in Australia have just entered into a two-year collaboration with the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC) and RUAG Australia to build and repair titanium and steel parts for defense aircraft using laser metal deposition (LMD) technology.

Professor Milan Brandt, Director of RMIT’s Centre for Additive Manufacturing and the research team lead, explained, “It’s basically a very high tech welding process where we make or rebuild metal parts layer by layer.”

LMD 3D printing works by feeding metal powder into a laser beam. When the powder is scanned across a surface, new material is then added in a very precise, web-like formation.

The metallurgical bond this process creates when repairing parts, or creating them from scratch, has mechanical properties that are similar to those of the original material, and in some cases even better. That’s why LMD has the potential to completely transform the aerospace industry.

While the project is centered around defense aircraft, David Chuter, the CEO and Managing Director of the IMCRC, believes that the applications of LMD technology could be far greater.

The laser metal deposition technology in the lab.

“The project’s benefits to Australian industry are significant. Although the current project focuses on military aircraft, it is potentially transferable to civil aircraft, marine, rail, mining, oil and gas industries.

“In fact, this could potentially be applied in any industry where metal degradation or remanufacture of parts is an issue,” Chuter said.

Over the last ten years, Brandt, who is one of the top experts in the field, has collaborated with RUAG Australia several times on various other projects.

Brandt said, “As the leading Australian research organisation in this technology, we are confident of being able to deliver a cost-effective solution that fulfils a real need for defence and other industries.”

Engineers repairing a landing gear.

BAE Systems commissioned an independent review, which estimated that it costs over $230 million each year for the Australian Air Force to replace broken or damaged aircraft components. At the moment, replacement parts have to be sent to sites from local, and sometimes even overseas, storage and suppliers, which wastes both time and money.

According to Neil Matthews, the Head of Research and Technology for RUAG Australia, by making it possible to repair and build parts onsite, LMD 3D printing could overhaul the warehouse and transportation concepts for the defense industry, among others.

“Instead of waiting for spare parts to arrive from a warehouse, an effective solution will now be on-site. For defence forces this means less downtime for repairs and a dramatic increase in the availability and readiness of aircraft,” said Matthews.

If a switch is made, and aircraft components 3D printed locally are used, costs could be saved in not only warehousing and shipping, but also in scrap metal management, maintenance, and spare part purchasing.

This LMD technology will be applied to parts for existing legacy aircraft, in addition to the new F35 fleet, and is also being used in RUAG’s new robotic laser additive manufacturing cell.

Discuss the aerospace industry and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Images: RUAG Australia, provided by RMIT]

 

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