Jun 1, 2016 | By Alec

Could the airplanes of the future be entirely 3D printed? It certainly seems as though Airbus, one of the biggest adopters of 3D printing technology in the aviation industry, is heading in that direction. Just two months ago, one Dutch partner revealed that Airbus is aiming to adopt 3D printing for about half of all airplane parts within just a few decades. The company has just put even more fuel on the fire by unveiling the Thor at ILA 2016, a completely 3D printed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The Thor is about 4 meters long and has a wingspan of about 4 meters. What’s more, the Thor already completed its first test flight in late 2015.

The International Aerospace Exhibition and Airshow (ILA) 2016 has just opened its doors in Berlin and features  plenty of things to excite aviation fans, with Airbus stealing the show. Once again, the company is the biggest contributor to the ILA Airshow, and their three crowd pullers are an A350 XWB, an A380 from Emirates and a A320neo (only present on the first day). An A400M military aircraft and an A330 MRTT multi-role tanker aircraft will also be on display, alongside the E-Fan 2.0 all-electric two-seater aircraft and the Perlan 2 experimental glider.

Of course, 3D printing fans will be most impressed by the Thor. As Peter Sander, Airbus’ head of emerging technologies & concepts, revealed, the Thor has been under development for some time. And though a great name, Thor is simply an acronym for Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality. “Thor is a test platform for high risk [aerodynamic] investigations,” Sander said. “We [will] prove the concept – [establish] if it works, or not.”

That specific function also reveals the need to rely on 3D printing; a 3D printed UAV can be designed and built in just a few weeks (rather than months), and will cost far less than conventionally built test aircraft. It means that the design can be optimized and altered at record speeds. As Sander revealed, it can be 3D printed in just four weeks or so – not bad for an aircraft that is about 4 meters in length and weighs about 25 kg. “It has low lead times for fast track developments,” Sander said.

All in all, this impressive unmanned air vehicle features about 50 individually 3D printed components, only the two engines and controls rely on non-3D printing production. The Airbus innovators also revealed that the technology has proven to be an excellent weight-saving solution. 3D printing thin layers of power material has enabled them to optimize part designs and minimize material use. And as weight is the most important cost factor in aviation, this could be a crucial innovation. It will be especially interesting to see how the Thor can contribute to innovation in the aviation sector. It already completed a promising test flight back in November, but is expected to fly about 18 more over 2016.

The Thor is not the only 3D printed innovation Airbus is working on, however. They are also testing 3D printed polyamide-alumide wing sections in wind tunnels, for which 3D printing has reduced lead-time by 90% and costs by 75%. Visitors will also be able to see their ‘bionic partition’ at ILA, a 3D printed cabin partition wall which will be placed between kitchens and passenger cabins on commercial aircraft. Thanks to its bionic design and 3D printing production, it will be up to 50 percent lighter than currently used structures (expected to be taken into use in late 2016).

AEROTEC, an Airbus subsidiary, will also showcase several of their metal 3D printing innovations at their booth at ILA. There they will reveal several certified 3D printed structural components, including a double-walled pipe elbow for the A400M. Through 3D printing, that titanium part has been produced much quicker and cheaper. It was previously made through time-consuming casting and welding techniques that waste a lot of material. In the near future, AEROTEC expects to be 3D printing far more structural metal components for Airbus aircraft, including for the A350-1000 range.

Airbus will also be showcasing several 3D printing innovations at German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy’s booth at ILA, such as their ‘Hangar of the Future’ concept, where unmanned aircraft can be repaired and maintained. The Hangar will feature scanning robots who can order 3D printed replacement parts that will be manufactured on the spot. This 3D printing concept could, Airbus speculates, reduce the need for long distance transport or unnecessary pollution. AEROTEC will also be exhibiting a 3D printed door frame at that same booth.

There will thus be plenty to see and do at the ILA for 3D printing fans, and we can’t wait to see footage of the Thor in action. Airbus, it seems, has become completely convinced that 3D printing has the power to fundamentally change the aviation industry.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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