“As composite materials increasingly dominate the airframe, their effective and swift repair becomes ever more critical,” says Phil Grainger, Senior Technical Director and Chief Technologist at GKN Aerospace, the UK-based aerospace supplier. “We believe this laser technology offers an important route to solving significant cost issues surrounding efficient high quality repair."

The agreement with German laser technology specialist SLCR will aim to deliver first generation equipment in just two years, Grainger says.

GKN Aerospace and SLCR are working on an automated laser process to replace the time-consuming manual grinding of the composite surface currently required to prepare for bonding new materials to form the repair. The laser process removes the composite material as required in the affected area, leaving the remaining material intact. Because it is a non-contact process, no force or vibration is applied to the composite structure and so there is no detrimental impact on its strength or integrity. The area can then be repaired using a replacement patch which is cured in place using a localised heating mat. 

The repair is reported to have the same strength as the manual repair but is far more reproducible, and it can be achieved 30% quicker, with a potential 60% cost reduction.

“This laser technology has huge promise for aircraft operators and the industry, enabling efficient, cost effective and high quality repair of almost any composite assembly, with the potential for work to be undertaken in the workshop or on the aircraft,” Grainger says. 

The development programme for this technology will be funded in partnership with UK government as part of the Environmental Lightweight Fan (ELF) Research Programme. This programme will play a major role in the evaluation of the first generation repair equipment.