In what could be a game-changing application for industry, researchers are using laser metal deposition (LMD) technology to manufacture and repair steel and titanium parts.
The technology, a type of 3D printing, uses metal powder to add new material to a surface. A laser beam transfers the metal powder in a precise, web-like formation. The resulting metallurgical bond has similar — in some cases, superior — mechanical properties to those of the original material.
Prof. Milan Brandt, director of the Centre for Additive Manufacturing at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, refers to the work as “basically a very high-tech welding process.” Brandt is leading the research, and using it to build and repair defense aircraft parts in collaboration with RUAG Australia and the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC).
Because it enables parts repair and production to be done onsite, Neil Matthews, RUAG’s head of research and technology, believes that the technology could completely transform the concept of warehousing and transporting for defense and other industries. "Instead of waiting for spare parts to arrive from a warehouse, an effective solution will now be on-site," he said. "For defense forces, this means less downtime for repairs and a dramatic increase in the availability and readiness of aircraft."
Not to mention cost reduction: Using locally printed components could add up to significant savings on maintenance, purchasing and scrap metal management, as well as warehousing and shipping. An independent review estimated the current annual cost to the Australian Air Force for replacing damaged aircraft components to be in excess of $230 million.
David Chuter, the IMCRC’s CEO and managing director, added that application of the technology can go beyond defense alone. “Although the current project focuses on military aircraft, it is potentially transferable to civil aircraft, marine, rail, mining, oil and gas industries," he said. "In fact, this could potentially be applied in any industry where metal degradation or remanufacture of parts is an issue."
The technology is also being adopted in RUAG's robotic laser additive manufacturing cell.