The objective of this project was to demonstrate and validate the Robotic Laser Coating Removal System (RLCRS) as an alternative technology to the current chemical and mechanical methods that are used to remove coatings from large off-equipment aircraft components. Specific demonstration objectives were to (1) verify the ability of the RLCRS to meet the requirements for coatings removal in a production environment without causing physical damage to the substrate and (2) validate the pollution reduction that could be achieved through use of laser coating removal systems across the Department of Defense (DoD).

Technology Description

The RLCRS integrates advanced laser coating removal technology with an automated robotic system. The individual components of the RLCRS include the laser, robotic base, beam delivery system, laser scanner, and waste extraction systems and parts cart. The use of laser paint stripping systems is applicable to depainting activities on large off-aircraft components and weapons systems for DoD.

Demonstration Results

Design, assembly, and debugging of the RLCRS were performed at Concurrent Technologies Corporation (CTC) in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Following debugging at CTC, a demonstration of this system was performed at the OC-ALC at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

The demonstration showed that the RLCRS is feasible for coating removal from large off-aircraft parts, including but not limited to KC-135 ailerons, rudders, landing gear doors, elevators, and flaps. Almost all wastes associated with the current chemical removal process would be eliminated by the implementation of this technology. The only wastes that remain are the removed coating, which is captured in filters, wastewater from rinsing the parts after coating removal, and minor masking materials and personal protective equipment (i.e., aluminum tape, cotton gloves, and wipes).

The cost assessment showed that RLCRS implementation results in a labor savings of approximately $7.4 million, an annual materials cost savings of approximately $113,600, and a waste management cost avoidance of approximately $60,000. The total annual operating cost savings equals approximately $7.5 million. A life-cycle cost analysis demonstrated that implementation and use of the RLCRS for coating removal of the targeted KC-135 parts would result in 15-year life-cycle cost savings greater than $111 million. These cost savings translate into a payback period of approximately 0.3 years.

Other Air Force depots and DoD facilities that perform chemical depainting of large off-aircraft parts will also realize similar cost savings. For example, if similar cost savings were assumed at all three of the major Air Force depots that perform chemical depainting operations on aircraft parts, the combined cost estimates would result in labor savings of approximately $66.6 million, an annual materials cost savings of approximately $1 million, and an annual waste management cost avoidance of approximately $540,000. The total annual operating cost avoidance would result in approximately $67 million per year for the U.S. Air Force.

Implementation Issues

Testing conducted by this project confirmed the ability of the RLCRS to provide efficient, nonhazardous coating removal. The system provides a reliable, environmentally friendly alternative to the current chemical, blast media, and/or hand sanding coating removal methods. The use of this system requires very minor setup or preparation time (i.e., 15 minutes or less) prior to coating removal operations on a part. Involvement of the Occupational, Health, and Safety officers throughout the process of implementation and use of laser coatings removal equipment is recommended. Clearly defining the substrates that will be encountered at the beginning of the project also is important.