Land Forces 2022 – Prime, SME collaboration drives composites for small arms manufacture


Today @AuManufacturing’s special editorial series Land Forces 2022 looks at a model for collaboration between defence industry companies and public sector researchers. Peter Roberts reports on work underway at Thales Australia’s Lithgow Arms business in NSW.

The statistics show that Australian manufacturers and business leaders are among the worst in the developed world at collaborating with each other and with outside organisations and public sector researchers.

But that is changing in defence industry with SMEs working with others and defence prime contractors to deliver innovative products to the Army, including at the century-old Lithgow Arms works located inside a deceptively old-looking complex of buildings at Lithgow, NSW (pictured).

For manufacturing technologies manager Gabriel Gudas (below), the catalyst to collaboration came when Thales embarked on a burst of product and company innovation and expansion at Lithgow, with Gudas himself charged with developing lighter versions of the company’s LA105 Woomera sporting rifle (below).

Gudas has long experience with composites including senior roles at Boeing and Quickstep: “We do have quite good composites expertise in Australia – I would say we are in the upper echelon in composites worldwide.

“The LA105 is a really well appreciated product, and now we are looking to take it up a few notches by reducing its weight with composites.”

But when Thales started looking for suppliers of composites resin – it was during the fraught years of the Covid-19 pandemic – only imports suited which brought with them supply chain uncertainties.

First Gudas turned to CSIRO and the nearby Carbon Nexus, part of Geelong’s Deakin University, which operates an industrial-scale carbon-fibre pilot production line at the university’s materials research precinct.

Professor of Composite Materials Russell Varley offered advice and put Gudas in touch with the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre, which co-funded a $240,000 research project to develop a composite gun barrel.

Gudas said: “And we put our funding application in in January this year, and it was approved in early March.

“It was a very accelerated process for us.”

The resins the company needed had to have particular glass transition temperatures (Tg) – the temperature at which they begin to melt.

Lithgow Arms has since worked with SMEs resins provider, Meury Enterprises, materials design engineering experts Advanced Composites Structures, and the Gold Coast’s ATL Composites, receiving advanced resins ‘a few weeks ago’.

Yet another Australian SME, Rocket Technologies International has been working with Lithgow Arms to produce fibre wound components.

Said Gudas: “Carbon Nexus produced the carbon fibre for us – for the first time we managed to produce in Australia a carbon fibre with very high modulus and of intermediate modulus.”

In carbon fibre, the higher the modulus, the stiffer the material is – the danger here is that the higher the modulus, the more brittle it becomes.

“Now we are looking to produce the weapon in Australia – predominantly it’s 100 percent Australian content that will go into the product.

“…We are looking at establishing a composites manufacturing facility at Lithgow.

“We (already) have a filament winder, a laboratory-style machine which we use on proof of concept work.”

Thales is now fast-tracking the development of the gun barrel for sporting rifles, is studying other components which can be replaced by composites and is planning further projects to apply composites to defence.

Thales is already investing in its Lithgow production site, building a new manufacturing and integration hub to manufacture next generation weapons systems for the ADF, as well as a Small Arms Collaboration and Cooperation Centre (C3) to further boost collaboration.

Said Gudas: “In Thales we are looking to engage with people with the right knowledge – you can’t expect to have all the knowledge housed inside one organisation.

“And when the more you are working collaboratively, the more you find people who are willing to engage.

“We are trying to get much better at collaboration.”

More reading:

@AuManufacturing’s special editorial series Land Forces 2022 is brought to you with the support of Thales Australia and BAE Systems Australia.

Pictures: Lithgow Arms/LA105 Woomera sporting rifle/Gabriel Gudas

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