Today I read about Jim Kors, an engineer who is designing a revolutionary new automobile to be manufactured via large-scale 3D printing. The Urbee, as he calls it, will be a lightweight, inexpensive, fuel-efficient runabout. Kors is not alone; auto companies have been using 3D printing to build concept cars for some time now.
It is my opinion that 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize the aviation industry.
3D printing is the process of making a solid 3-dimensional object from a computerized model. Essentially, one designs an object in an AutoCAD program and sends it to the 3D printing machine. The machine then prints layers of material, or uses lasers to fuse microscopic materials together, creating the object. My understanding is that 3D printers can create objects made of thermoplastic material, certain types of metal alloys, or plastic and ceramic powders.
How does this tie in to aviation? I think that large-scale 3D printing could become a useful tool in the manufacture of a new generation of lightweight, inexpensive LSA’s or experimental airplanes. At the very least it could be used to fabricate aircraft components.
We’ve already seen 3D printing used to manufacture very small aircraft. Students at the University of Virginia have flown an R/C aircraft with a 6.5-foot wingspan that was manufactured on a 3D printer. The students printed the various components of the aircraft individually and fastened them together with specially designed connectors. After a few wobbles that were easily corrected thanks to modular design, it flew.
Granted, a 6.5-foot R/C airplane is NOT the same as a human-scale aircraft. But the technology holds promise! The potential to print wings, control surfaces, cowlings, and possibly fuselage components could make it dramatically easier to construct an experimental aircraft. Rather than mucking about with composites or spending months riveting sheet metal, one could simply load a schematic into the printer and then assemble the parts.
That said, there are hurdles to overcome. 3D printed objects are not as structurally sound as composites or metal, and I think I speak for all pilots when I say that structural integrity is important to me. Researchers are developing techniques to improve the structural integrity of 3D printed objects.
This is a technology that is still very much in its infancy, but it is one that I will be watching with a keen eye as I suspect it will have a big impact on aviation. Even if we never see an entire plane manufactured with 3D printing, I strongly suspect we will start to see 3D printed components soon.