In a sign that the 3D printing industry is taking off, the world's first 'printed' aircraft has soared the skies over UK's Wiltshire Downs, north of Stonehenge.
Engineers at the University of Southampton have developed an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) whose entire structure has been printed, including wings, integral control surfaces and access hatches.
The plane, called SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft), was printed on an EOS EOSINT P730 nylon laser sintering machine, which fabricates plastic or metal objects, building up the item layer by layer.
Once all the components were printed, assembly took minutes, say the engineers. No fasteners were used and all equipment was attached using 'snap fit' techniques so that the entire aircraft can be put together without tools.
The electric-powered UAV has a wingspan of about 6.5 ft, has a top speed of nearly 100 miles per hour, and runs almost silent when in cruise mode. The team even equipped it with a miniature autopilot.
Traditional manufacturing methods are costlier and would have required months to develop a similar plane, whereas the design and fabrication process for SULSA took just a few weeks.
Because no tooling is required for manufacture, radical changes to the shape and scale of the aircraft can be made with no extra cost.
Professors Jim Scanlan from the University's Computational Engineering and Design Research group credits laser sintering for the achievement:
The flexibility of the laser sintering process allows the design team to re-visit historical techniques and ideas that would have been prohibitively expensive using conventional manufacturing. One of these ideas involves the use of a Geodetic structure. This type of structure was initially developed by Barnes Wallis and famously used on the Vickers Wellington bomber which first flew in 1936. This form of structure is very stiff and lightweight, but very complex. If it was manufactured conventionally it would require a large number of individually tailored parts that would have to be bonded or fastened at great expense.
(Source: University of Southampton)