Apr 30, 2016 | By Tess

Additive manufacturing technologies have helped to reinvigorate the aerospace industry in many ways, by allowing for faster prototyping, as well as the manufacturing of lighter, more efficient parts. The technology, however, has not only been useful in creating new and futuristic technologies within the industry, but has also helped to restore old aircrafts, helping to fill in the history of aviation. At the Topeka Air Combat Museum in Kansas for instance, one volunteer helped to restore the replica of a WWI fighter plane using 3D printing technologies, allowing for museum-goers to see the early aircraft in all its glory.

The aircraft, a De Havilland 2, was received by the museum in 2015, though only 80% of the plane’s structure was in tact as a rear-mounted engine was missing. The Topeka museum, which has relied on the help of dedicated volunteers to help restore previous aircraft models, asked one of their most talented volunteers, Gene Howerter, to take on the job, though at the age of 75, he decided it was too much work.

Fortunately, another volunteer, who had been working with the museum to create a virtual tour of their nearly 40 aircraft, decided he was up for the task. The volunteer was Huw Thomas, an associate professor of industrial design at the University of Kansas. Normally, the museum’s restorations required a number of innovative, traditional materials such as wood, metal scraps, glue, and paint to complete, though with Thomas heading the restoring process, he decided to take a different route: that of digital design and 3D printing.

According to Thomas, he was able to recreate a digital model of the plane’s missing rear engine with the help of a 1915 service manual that he managed to track down. Even the designing process took hm about 60 hours to complete. For the actual 3D printing of the engine, which was completed in a number of small parts, Thomas used facilities at the Univeristy of Kansas which were equipped with two LulzBot Taz 3D printers. To make the printing process go even faster, Thomas invested in his own 3D printer, so parts could be make at his home simultaneously.

With the 3D printers, it still took the industrial designer about 400 hours to print the airplane engine parts, as each of the engine’s nine cylinders were made in separate halves. After the printing, Thomas assembled all the plastic pieces using a strong adhesive. The restoration project, which began in November, was only just recently completed, as last Wednesday the 3D printed engine was given a propeller and fitted onto the back of the WWI fighter plane replica. In the end, the engine measured an impressive three feet in length and 14 inches in width, weighing just a few pounds.

The 3D printed engine, which was completed at no cost (except materials) by Thomas, will be unveiled to museum visitors tomorrow, on Wednesday April 26th, where it will be displayed in the museum’s main hangar. Currently, Thomas is working on designing the replica of a Lewis machine gun for the De Havilland, which he also plans to 3D print to help complete the plane model.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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