World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

Summary: Engineers at the University of Southampton have developed an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) whose entire structure has been printed, potentially changing the economics of aircraft design.

TOPICS: Travel Tech

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.

Credit: University of Southampton

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)


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Topic: Travel Tech

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  • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

    Only time will really tell if it's viable or not, though. It's been my experience that that a lot of promising stuff looks good at first, but may end up being a flop nevertheless due to unforeseen issues. This manufacturing process has been tried - but never really been proven.
  • A limitation in some cases

    The approach seems to have many virtues and I welcome it

    For some uses benefitting from the flexibility will come at a price regarding testing and certification of a product.

    Insurers may not like covering a specification that changes by the week. Ambulance chasers may ask whether every aspect of manufacture and application has been thoroughly checked and documented, etc. etc.
  • Not an airplane ... just an RC model.

    They didn't built an airplane. They built an plastic RC model.

    Not even the 1st at "printing" the materials.
    • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

      @wackoae They printed the plane in 4 complete sections with working aerilons, then it simply clicked together with no additional glue or fixings. The electric motor is added along with the autopilot circuit board. RC was just for take off and landing.
      • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

        @Jules_T_ I believe what wackoae was referring to was that a lot of new RC planes are done this way now also from what I understand, at least the very light electric RC planes. If this does work out, it would certainly reduce lead times for making aircraft.....
  • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

    Great effort for college crowd. Have seen these plastic
    machines locally. They can make just about any design.
    Great idea for military or even government(mail). Hope
    the idea catches some offical approval. Maybe some more
    info about this later? Regards, RWS
  • Demonstration of concept

    Don't knock it - from when the Wright Brothers first flew a few feet off the ground for a 100 yards it was around 10 years to flying across the English Channel. Think how much technical development there has been in the last 10 years.

    Regarding the comment about ambulance chasers - years ago it was not possible to do custom hip implants for people with skeletal deformities. Thanks to an EU project, these were then designed with CAD and stress tested with CAD before being machined. This 3D printing will find some of its greatest uses in medical engineering where los cost complex and custom designs are required.

    It will be especially valuable for things such as artificial limbs.
    • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

      @tony@... by ambulance chaser he ment lawyer lol, guess you never heard that term before.
  • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

    Cool - our guys over in that $hithole Afghanistan can start bringing printers with them and have RC reconnaissance planes that they could strap a camera to. If they get shot down, print another and throw another GoPro camera on it - presto - dirtbags in sight again.
  • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

    I think the most promising application of this is fabrication of one-off designs making testing of new concepts in 3D much eaasier and quicker.
  • 3D Printing for Fit, Form and Function

    Absolutely brilliant and a discussion piece around our engineering table. This is what 3D Printing is all about.Thank you for sharing!
    • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies


      Thanks for reading!
  • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

    I love the idea of 3D printing being in everyone's homes in the future (at least until nanorobots can turn my waste products into cell phones) but now I'm thinking about hacking/viruses of the future... do I want LulzSec making my 3D printer print out a kill-bot? :-) :-)
    • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies


      Even worse, have it produce nanobots programmed turn your waste products into another sinter programmed to produce nanobots programmed to produce another sinter...

      We'll print our way to grey goo.
  • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

    I want to know what kind of radar cross-section this "printed airplane" has!
    • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies


      It's made of plastic. Only metal is added afterwards (R/C gear, motor, auto pilot... Radar cross-section would be "nil" for its size.
  • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

    The real breakthrough will be printing the molds for 'mass' production. The economies of scale will no longer need a string of noughts on production quantities, and product variety will no longer be an expensive luxury.
  • How about a first printed car and a house.

    Can we develop a printed car and a printed house?
  • RE: World's first 'printed' airplane takes to the skies

    Come on people. This is in no way "printing". It's just a device that uses technology similar to printers.
  • That wing shape looks very familiar

    cue Battle of Britain soundtrack