Latest 3D print job: a small airplane

Engineers successfully fly a small pilotless aircraft -- produced from a 3D printer.

We've been talking about the promising potential of 3D printing for some time here at SmartPlanet, in which specialized printers, connected to ordinary PCs, can be employed to mass produce highly customized products -- from houses to food -- in the same way we produce documents.

Add another accomplishment to the 3D printing repertoire -- small aircraft. Researchers from the University of Southampton have just designed and flew the world's first "printed" aircraft. The SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) plane is an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) whose entire structure has been printed, including wings, integral control surfaces and access hatches. It was printed on an EOS EOSINT P730 nylon laser sintering machine, which fabricates plastic or metal objects, building up the item layer by layer.

The entire design-to-flight process took less than a week, versus months. Even moving parts were printed all at once. As designer Jim Scanlan explained: "The novel aspect of the structure is that it is completely fastener free. In fact, all of the control surfaces have been grown in the laser printing process. So, there are no subsequent assembly operations."

Is it possible we may someday fly in a Cessna or Beechcraft, or eventually even a Boeing or Airbus craft "printed" on demand?  Perhaps NASA could even deal with budget cuts by designing printable spacecraft.  Anyway you look at it, this new form of desktop manufacturing is going to bring production back close to the source.

(Photo Credit: University of Southampton.)

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