Armor forged through collaboration

The next big thing in body armor comes from the DMTC.

Forged from plough parts, heated in a makeshift iron forge and moulded into shape over a Stringybark log, the homemade armor worn by Ned Kelly and his gang is almost as famous as the man himself. Although the suit of armor deflected many bullets, it weighed in at just over 44kg, and left his hands and legs unprotected.

Now, the winner of the Cooperative Research Centres Association (CRC) Award for Excellence in Innovation 2015, the Defence Materials Technology Centre (DMTC), have developed a unique manufacturing process that produces armor with the same level of protection as traditional combat body armor, but is far lighter.

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The DMTC developed a cutting edge manufacturing process for shaping ceramic boron carbide armor. Very difficult to manufacture, one of the key issues for the team was maintaining quality control as the material expanded and compressed in response to the heat of the production process.

“Up until recently, body armor design has been relatively simple, durable but so heavy you can’t move quickly…Think: the Ned Kelly suit,” says DMTC CEO Dr Mark Hodge. “Having optimal equipment enhances survivability. Mobility is a significant contributor to personnel protection and with less weight and more mobility, soldiers are able to get out of trouble more quickly,” he says.

Body armor designs trade off protection against weight and bulk reduction with highly protective systems often proving heavy and restrictive. Successive models have been designed to offer more comprehensive levels of protection, with vests made from industrial strength fibre to deform bullets upon impact, and plated metal inserts to provide extra protection to vital areas. Although significantly lighter than Kelly’s original armor, today’s combat body armor remains heavy and unwieldy, a troubling fact as soldiers carry up to 58kg of gear in certain situations.

As one of the hardest substances known to man, boron carbide is frequently used in the manufacturing of body armor. However up until now it was very difficult to bend boron carbide into a variety of different forms to be used for specific body shapes. As a result, heavier materials had to be used.

With this new near-net shaping technology developed by the DMTC, body armor made purely from boron carbide will allow for manufacturing of lighter armor panels such as helmet inserts and customized ballistic panels for combat vehicles.

The development of the specialized process will yield many benefits for the Australian defense industry, says Hodge. Rather than having to outsource research and development from another country, it is being done right at home. Allowing the defense industry to make adjustments and improvements at any time to accommodate the needs of defense personnel.

Contributions included academic support from The University of Melbourne and Swinburne University of Technology, advice from the DSTO, the Army’s Diggerworks Program, Australian Defense Apparel, and research and manufacturing expertise from BMT, CSIRO, and VCAMM. The collaboration allowed for strides in industrial design capability as well as guidance from the defense department as to what threats the armor should be designed to withstand.

“It would have been impossible to find all the expertise needed for the project under one roof,” Hodge says. “In order to source the appropriate equipment and variety of expertise, we needed a collaborative team that shared a common sense of purpose,” he says.

In the next 25 years Hodge says the integration of the unique net shaping process will be applied broadly to the defense industry due to the extensive use of boron carbide in combat body armor. However, this does not mean that work stops for Hodge.

“Bullets are made to defeat body armor, so we must learn the limits of the material so that we can continue to improve and offer the next level of protection.”

 

Article published on Refraction Media’s Science Meets Business website.

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