Printed Parts Take Flight

As the aerospace industry moves toward supersonic travel and other innovations, 3D printing is keeping pace. Last week, Boom Supersonic announced a partnership with 3D-printer-maker Stratasys. Meanwhile, Airbus recently debuted a mini 3D-printed aircraft.

Boom will accelerate production of advanced tooling and production-grade aircraft parts using Stratasys FDM 3D printing technology.

The first flight of Boom’s XB-1, the company’s supersonic demonstrator is expected to take place next year. The supersonic airliner should be able to fly 2.6 times faster others on the market By accelerating to 1,451 miles per hour, the planes could reduce typical New York to London flight times of seven hours to just over three hours, according to Blake Scholl, founder of Boom, which is headquartered in Denver.

“Supersonic flight has existed for over 50 years, but the technology hasn’t existed to make it affordable for routine commercial travel,” Scholl said. “Additive manufacturing helps accelerate development of a new generation of aircraft.”

The company will use Stratasys  FDM printers to produce on-demand parts made from production-grade thermoplastics.

After making the rounds at airshows, Airbus has resumed testing it’s small pilotless aircraft made with 3D printing technology. The aircraft, known as THOR, which stands for testing high-tech objectives in reality, serves as a testbed for many futuristic aircraft technologies: from 3D-printed structural parts to advanced aerodynamics and artificial intelligence, said Detlev Konigorski, who oversees the THOR project, headquartered in Hamburg, Germany.

Ninety percent of THOR’s structural components were 3-D printed from plastic polyamide power. The aircraft weighs about 46 pounds and can fit in a 13-foot square space, he added.

“This mini aircraft does not represent an actual airliner design Airbus is considering, rather it is a platform to enable low-risk and fast-track development of different technologies in real flying conditions,” Konigorski said.

Konigorski is part of Airbus’s emerging technologies and concepts activity.

THOR’s initial flight took place in November 2015, and the mini aircraft recently resume testing following its display at recent air shows.

“The first flight was simply about flying,” Konigorski said. “Now, we want to generate basic data on things like altitude, speed and acceleration in a turn.”

Airbus is testing a small, pilotless airplane, 90 percent of which is made from 3D-printed parts.

A big advantage for THOR is the short lead time of 3D-printing, which significantly reduced development time for producing the technology demonstrator compared to traditional manufacturing methods.

Using an existing design concept, it took approximately seven weeks to print the THOR aircraft’s 60 structural segments, followed by approximately one week for assembly and three days to fine tune the electrical systems before it was flight-ready, Kornigorski said.

Follow-on THOR versions currently are being assembled at the new Center of Applied Aeronautical Research in Hamburg. These aircraft will feature a modular design allowing for greater flexibility in airframe and structural testing, he added.

For example, the second THOR version will accommodate interchangeable wings, including concepts for a hexagonal wing with support structure derived from a honeycomb design; a metallic aluminum wing; and a flexible wing made from carbon-fiber reinforced plastics, Konigorski said.

Once wing testing is complete, the THOR project will focus on artificial intelligence. The idea is for a THOR aircraft to land completely on its own, identifying obstacles on the runway and determining whether it is safe to touch down without support from any ground infrastructure. 

While these 3D printed parts aren’t quite ready for prime time—they’re not flying passengers or packages commercially—they’re closer and closer to getting there.

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