RUAG Australia, a subsidiary of RUAG Aviation, is in the midst of a two-year project to investigate the use of an additive manufacturing process called laser metal deposition (LMD) for quicker, more cost-effective aircraft repairs. In collaboration with Australian researchers from the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC) and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), RUAG is focusing on the use of LMD to manufacture spare parts from steel and titanium.
“Strategically speaking, a shift to LMD technology means less downtime for repairs and a dramatic increase in the availability and readiness of aircraft,” says Neil Matthews, senior manager of advanced technology and engineering solutions at RUAG Australia. “Instead of waiting for spare parts to arrive from a warehouse, an effective solution will now be available locally.”
According to RMIT’s research team, LMD is essentially a very high-tech welding process where metal parts are rebuilt layer by layer, similar to 3D production technology. Metal powder is fed into a laser beam and deposited across a surface in a precise, web-like formation. The researchers say LMD’s bond is exceptionally strong, which makes it a viable process for not only manufacturing spare parts, but repairing existing parts where the repaired part is just as strong—or stronger—than the original.
“The ultimate goal of the project is to develop indigenous capability that provides innovative and cost-effective sustainment solutions through the use of additive metal technologies which, in turn, reduce life-cycle costs and maintain reliable operational availability through repair and, when necessary, real-time manufacture,” Matthews explains.
According to Matthews, LMD could foreseeably be applied in manufacture or repair of high strength steel aircraft parts, such as those used in an aircraft’s undercarriage. Within manufacturing, LMD would typically be ideal for small, complex, highly loaded “low volume” parts, such as titanium components, he says. The project’s research team is evaluating how LMD could provide demonstrable cost savings in areas such as maintenance and spare parts purchasing, scrap metal management, warehousing and shipping.
The project is currently focused on how LMD could be applied to existing military aircraft platforms and newer systems, such as the F-35 fleet, but the team believes the technology could potentially be transferable to civil aircraft or other industries.
According to David Chuter, CEO and managing director of IMCRC, the Australian aviation industry stands to benefit significantly from the research project. The Australian Air Force’s estimated total cost of replacing damaged aircraft parts is more than AU$230 million.
Matthews says RUAG Australia has been working with LMD since 2014 and the company has already identified additional repair applications for the technology, as well as a titanium component that is likely to be manufactured as a demonstration of LMD.
The research project began in March 2018 and is scheduled to finish in March 2020.