Industry collaboration allows 3D printed plane to soar

Posted on 3 Aug 2011 by The Manufacturer

3D printing technology has taken another leap forward with the flight of the first ‘printed’ aircraft.

The innovative new concept model took to the air in Southampton where University of Southampton academics Professors Keane and Scanlan, have been working on the blue sky project.

3T RPD, an additive layer manufacturing specialist based in Berkshire, has been assisting with this project. The company contributed their nylon SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) technology which was used to build the plane’s four part structure. These sections, formed of main fuselage and rudder fins, the nose cone and two outer wings, all fitted simply together in a snap fit assembly process.

Engineering design work for the Southampton unmanned aviation project was carried out on Solidworks CAD software. Jim Scanlan, Professor of Aerospace Design at the University of Southampton, said: “Thanks to 3T’s CAD Engineers, no fasteners were used and all equipment was attached using ‘snap fit’ techniques such that the entire aircraft can be put together without tools in minutes.”

He added, “The entire structure of the aircraft has been printed including wings, integral control surfaces and access hatches.”

Scanlan spoke of the immense potential for 3D printing technology within industry and said it would allow aerospace engineers to re-visit and challenge convenetional wisdom on the manufacturability of designs. He pointed to elliptical wing planforms to demonstrate his point: “Aerodynamicists have, for decades, known that elliptical wings offer drag benefits” but “laser sintering removes the manufacturing constraint associated with shape complexity and in the SULSA aircraft there is no cost penalty in using an elliptical shape.”

Stuart Offer, SLS Sales Manager at 3T, concluded “This project took little more than a month to complete…With simplified assembly due to the internal design features, SLS was the ideal solution as it also offered tremendous strength despite the weight of the plastic parts being less than 2kg.”

3T RPD is not only working on research projects like this ambitious unmanned aircraft. The company has been applying its technology within industry for some time now creating specialist aerospace components as well as medical implants and architecutral design for the construction industry, to name just a few markets.

Recently 3T RPD agreed a new partnership with advanced engineering firm, JJ Churchill who hope to enhance their rapid prototyping capabilities through the use of additive layer technology.

JJ Churchill’s managing director, Andrew Churchill, highlighted for TM his excitement about the increasing opportunity for smaller manufacturers to leverage 3D printing technologies. Previously these were largely the demain of University research deprtments and large firms. In particular it was 3T RPD’s expertise with powder metallurgy in the context of additivel layer manufacturing which Mr Churchill’s interest.

In the August issue of TM Will Stirling investigates the everymans’ 3D printer in his article ‘Out of stock? Print me a new one’.