|Gregor Ferguson From: The Australian October 23, 2010 12:00AM
ONE of the undoubted success stories of the defence force deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan has been the performance of the Army's Bushmaster protected-mobility vehicles.
Despite the growing threat from Taliban improvised bombs, the Bushmaster, designed and built in Bendigo by Thales Australia, has protected Australian, Dutch and British soldiers from death and serious injury.
Now Australian defence planners are looking to the ADF's next generation of armoured vehicles.
Local research scientists and industry engineers are looking at the challenges of improving protection without adding to the weight and cost of vehicles.
There's no way of achieving the protection Diggers need without building a heavy vehicle.
Designers take a conservative approach and struggle as a result to balance protection against performance and payload.
Improved grades of armour steel are being developed, and while designers welcome this, they are still learning about their properties and behaviour.
The trial-and-error process of blast-testing prototypes is time-consuming and expensive, so designers still need to be conservative in design.
A new generation of computer models and virtual design tools would make the engineers' lives easier, according to Mark Hodge, chief executive of the Defence Materials Technology Centre, in Melbourne.
The centre, along with steel manufacturers Bisalloy Steels and BlueScope Steel, is working on this problem with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, university researchers and Thales Australia.
Between them they're developing better steel for armoured vehicles, virtual design tools to help engineers make best use of these materials, and automated welding and fabrication processes to cut weight and cost.
The defence materials centre, funded by the DMO and some 27 industry, state government andr esearch partners, was set up in 2008 by Defence and the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research to help the defence forces and local industry benefit from ground-breaking research into high-technology materials that is carried out in Australia.
Just as aircraft designers can call on computer models to improve the aerodynamics or strength of an aircraft, one of the centre's most important research goals is to develop virtual models of steel armour's behaviour when hit by a projectile or blast.
No such models exist for armoured steel manufactured in Australia, so over-engineering is the only safe design approach.
Over the next 10-15 years the army plans to acquire 1300 light protected-mobility vehicles, worth more than $1 billion, in Project Land 121 Ph.4, and then to replace more than 1300 M113s, ASLAV light armoured vehicles and Bushmasters in Project Land 400. These projects will benefit from the centre's research because computer models and virtual design tools will help engineers optimise designs before building prototypes and testing them, Dr Hodge says.
The models will also incorporate new welding and fabrication processes being developed by Thales Australia and Bisalloy together with the University of Wollongong.
They're working on robotic welding techniques for high-hardness armour steel to provide more consistent quality and a quicker (and therefore cheaper) fabrication process, research leader Professor Huijun Li said.
His colleague, Dr Steve Pan, is working on lean automation techniques, integrating welding robots with computer-aided design systems used for armoured vehicles.
This could pay off, he said, by enabling the most efficient assembly and welding processes and making it possible to prepare a production line or introduce design changes with minimal disruption and factory downtime.
This was unglamorous work, but its potential benefits were massive, Dr Hodge said.
At a conservative estimate, Projects Land 121 Ph.4 and Land 400 will be worth more than $2 billion.
Reducing hull fabrication time (and therefore cost) while improving protection will strengthen local industry's argument for building the hulls of these vehicles in Australia.
That in turn will help meet Defence's industry policy goals by sustaining local skills and industry capacity.
Gregor Ferguson is a former DMTC research fellow