Aerospace

RMIT applies metal 3D printing to aircraft maintenance and repair

Professor Milan Brandt at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University is leading a project applying metal 3D printing to service the Australian Defence Forces.

Working with national aircraft support service RUAG Australia and the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC) Brandt’s team at RMIT is using laser metal deposition to cut down the cost of maintenance, repair & overhaul (MRO) operations.

Laser metal deposition equipment at RMIT. Photo via RMIT University
Laser metal deposition equipment at RMIT. Photo via RMIT University

A national initiative 

RUAG Australia is a wholly owned subsidiary of Swiss Technology company RUAG. It’s purpose within Australia is to support and service the nation’s defence and aerospace markets through manufacturing, engineering, finishing and R&D.

The IMCRC is a government funded facility that first launched in collaboration with RMIT and several other universities in 2015.

At RMIT, Professor Brandt and his team work within the School of Engineering. Brandt’s expertise is within the field of manufacturing, materials and mechatronics, with particular interest in the processing of titanium.

This project for the Australian Defence Forces focuses on the fabrication and repair of aerospace-grade parts made from steel and titanium.

Laser metal deposition

The RMIT team is using laser metal deposition (LMD) technology due to its flexibility for both fixing damaged parts and fabricating parts from scratch.

LMD is a type of directed energy deposition (DED) technology. Instead of melting metal powder contained with a bed, LMD and DED technologies blow the powder through a nozzle, and melt it precisely on contact between a central laser and the target surface.

Diagram of LMD/DED 3D printing. Image via The Fabricator
Diagram of LMD/DED 3D printing. Image via

Or, as RMIT’s Bradt explains it, “It’s basically a very high-tech welding process where we make or rebuild metal parts layer by layer.”

DED technology is popularly marketed by companies such as FormalloyOptomec and AddUp. However, prominent developers of LMD technology include TWI, in the UK, and German machine tool company Trumpf.

Trumpf’s LMD 3D printers include the TruLaser Cell 3000, and the TruLaser Weld 5000 – a “turn-key system for automated laser welding.”

The Trumpf TruLaser Weld 5000. Image via Trumpf
The Trumpf TruLaser Weld 5000. Image via Trumpf

The TrueLaser Weld 5000 is operated by a central robotic arm which appears similar to the system in use at the RMIT lab (pictured at the beginning of this article.)

For defense and beyond

With RUAG and the IMCRC, Brandt’s research group will be using LMD technology on legacy aircraft, and the fleet of 72 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets which have just been acquired by the the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

According to estimates, purchases, upgrades and maintenance of the the new F-35 fleet is expected to run into $1.2 trillion USD over its decades of service. With 3D printing, the RMIT initiative hopes to curb at least some of this cost.

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

Recently, Professor Brandt was also named the project lead on the AUD$12.1 million ($9.29 million USD) ‘Just in time implants’ project, which sees the university working with the Australian Government, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and medical implant specialist Stryker.

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Featured image shows a fleet of the Royal Australian Air Force’s fighter jets flying in formation. Photo via Aus_AirForce on Twitter