There's an excellent article on 3D printing in Forbes this week that's been doing the rounds on social media. The article explores the progress towards full-scale 3D printing for airplanes and examines a 'concept fuselage' for an Airbus passenger-liner that's currently going through the design process.
I've followed the work of EADS (the owners of Airbus) for quite some time now and it seems they're making some strong progress with the use of 3D printing for aircraft and defense system products - particularly with the development of 3D printed wings, UAV's (unmanned aerial vehicles) and even new types of body armor (!) based upon complex 3D printed geometries that work rather like muscles, which contract to become denser when hit from a certain direction.
What's interesting about all this is their innovative use of 3D printing for final production systems or parts. And its here that the advantages of 3D printing for the aerospace sector are most striking.
Let's take the example of an aircraft wing. For anyone who hasn't brushed up on their bird anatomy recently, a bird's wing is very similar to an aircraft wing (see photo above): It's adapted for flight by being hollow - yet filled with criss-crossing struts or trusses that add structural strength while keeping the overall weight down to a minimum. But to mimic the bird's bone geometry requires a lot of man-made assembly and a great many nuts and bolts - all of which add weight to the final wing structure.
Now imagine if the entire wing, with its complex hollow/truss structures, could be manufactured like in nature – in a single step – with no nuts and bolts. The ’grown’ wing would be significantly stronger and lighter than anything produced on an assembly line. Take it a step further and you could imagine a UAV or Predator-type drone, almost entirely created on a 3D printer. It would be able to travel faster, higher, for longer, with a greater payload than anything in operation today.
Can we take it a step further? Imagine if we could create that same 3D printed drone - but this time using a multi-material 3D printer - rather like the Objet Connex system. This would allow you to further optimize your load distributions using different multi-material strength gradients - all within one seamless structure. You may have seen this photo below already - it's from our recent education blog post on '3D Printing Material Distributions' (courtesy of Payne & Michalatos) that examines this concept in greater detail. See how the white material inside the transparent material helps to further support the load distribution from above - yet both the white and transparent materials are 3D printed together at the same time and are one homogenously connected piece.
The Forbes article we mentioned at the start also provides some nice examples from the Objet Connex system - but by applying the model concept above, an aircraft manufacturer could, in future, create a single wing or fuselage which was “stong where it needed to be strong, or light where it needed to be light”.
While we’re on the subject of airplanes, the 3D printed airplane prototype in the photos below is about 25cm in length and was created on the Objet Connex500 multi-material 3D printer.
The main parts of the plane ( fuselage, engines, propeller blades etc) are created by jetting a combination of Rigid Black and Rigid White materials along with various intermediate gray ‘Digital Materials’ – composed by the selective mixing of the black and white. Apart from the transparent windows and propeller cones (which were printed separately and glued into place), there are actually no assembled parts to this model.
Perhaps it won’t be too long then, before we see a combination of metal and multi-material 3D printing technologies being used to create a whole new generation of aircraft. Both the Airbus with the ‘sun-roof’ concept or even a new series of advanced extra-capable miniature drones. Either way the future is getting more exciting by the minute!