Forged from plough parts, heated in a makeshift iron forge and moulded into shape over a Stringybark log, the homemade armour worn by Ned Kelly and his gang is almost as famous as the man himself. Although the suit of armour 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 armour with the same level of protection as traditional combat body armour, but is far lighter.
The DMTC developed a cutting edge manufacturing process for shaping ceramic boron carbide armour. 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 armour 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 armour 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 fibres to deform bullets upon impact, and plated metal inserts to provide extra protection to vital areas. Although significantly lighter than Kelly’s original armour, today’s combat body armour 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 armour. 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 armour made purely from boron carbide will allow for manufacturing of lighter armour panels such as helmet inserts and customised ballistic panels for combat vehicles.
The development of the specialised process will yield many benefits for the Australian defence industry, says Hodge. Rather than having to outsource research and development from another country, it is being done right at home. Allowing the defence industry to make adjustments and improvements at any time to accommodate the needs of defence 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 Defence 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 defence department as to what threats the armour 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 defence industry due to the extensive use of boron carbide in combat body armour. However, this does not mean that work stops for Hodge.
“Bullets are made to defeat body armour, so we must learn the limits of the material so that we can continue to improve and offer the next level of protection.”
– Kara Norton