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Thanks to the accuracy and precision of 3D printing, creating just about anything has become a reality – even your own plane. The aviation industry and space agencies like NASA have used 3D printers to create all kinds of shuttle parts, proving that with 3D printing, anything is possible. Join us to explore how this is revolutionizing aviation technology and the aeronautics industry as the world's biggest airliners incorporate 3D printing into their design-to-manufacture processes.

3D printing and aviation

Over the past decade, the world’s biggest airlines have actively explored 3D printing, and to good effect. In fact, UAE engineering giant Emirates and MRO, which promotes Airbus and Boeing models, have been using 3D printers for plane maintenance and cabin parts for years. Taking things a step further, the world's first 3D printed plane was unveiled at the Berlin Air Show in 2016. Airbus' pilotless and windowless mini-jet, which is less than 4m (13ft) in length and weighs 46lbs, debuted in Berlin. The aircraft is named "Thor", which stands for “Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality”.

Addressing the Berlin Air Show crowd, Thor’s chief developer Detlev Konigorski shared how 3D printing technology was used to create not just a few small parts, but an entire aircraft (minus the electrical components) out of polyamide. This revolutionary development highlights how 3D printing could save airlines time, fuel and money by significantly reducing manufacturing, labor and assembly costs. One way in which costs are cut is the redundancy of tools: by printing a plane part perfectly to scale, the design doesn’t need to be altered. And since the newest 3D printers can produce pieces up to 40cm in length, designs can be both complex and intricate.

Additionally, 3D printing has many ecological benefits, such as lighter 3D-printed jets, which use less fuel than commercially produced heavy jets. Arguably the biggest rivals in aviation, Airbus and Boeing, have taken full advantage of all the benefits of 3D printing, incorporating printed parts into their most popular jets like the A350 and B787 Dreamliner.

3D printing is one of the most exciting developments in the aviation industry over the last decade, with many believing that by 2030 spare aircraft parts will be printed and assembled at airports. So what does this exciting technology mean for the aviation industry’s future?

3D printing: fad or future?

Airbus’s Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality (THOR) at the Berlin Airshow in 2016
Airbus’s Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality (THOR) at the Berlin Airshow in 2016

3D printing is becoming an unstoppable force within all manufacturing sectors – including automotive, aviation and aerospace. There are three main factors that underpin the belief that 3D printing is the future of aviation:

  1. Direct-metal printing, which sees fully automated multi-station direct metal printers create metal alloy and spacecraft jigs and fixtures.
  2. Printing speed, with all its accuracy, is becoming quicker and quicker. Not to mention that printing photo-curable polymers at high speeds reduces design-to-manufacturing cycles to minutes instead of weeks, months and sometimes years.
  3. Selective laser sintering – the capability to design and print parts from a host of nylon materials at increased speed – also speeds up production chains.

So while 3D printing is essentially a self-optimizing factory in a box, it’s proving to be a formidable force within the aviation and manufacturing sectors.

3D flying planes

Plane blueprint
Plane blueprint

3D printing simultaneously reduces aircraft weight and emissions whilst increasing construction rates and customization. And no airline is more invested in 3D printing than Airbus, who have spent more than $2 million on Additive Industries’ room-filling 3D printer which allows them to incorporate 3D-printed engine, plane and cabin parts into their planes.

Airbus' meshing of digital and manufacturing spheres means planes like the A350 XWB now feature over 1,000 3D-printed components. Airbus are approaching a technological landmark, as they’re well on their way to having half their airline fleet 3D-printed by 2050. And hot on their tail is rival Boeing, who are using 3D printers to create a range of features such as fuel nozzles, sensors and fan turbine blades for their family of large Boeing 777x airliners.

From improved turbofan and jet engine propulsion to flight controls and aerospace parts, 3D printing is quickly becoming the future of aviation. And as aviation technology and aircraft systems continue to improve and innovate through 3D printing technology, commercial airliners, military aircraft and the aerospace industry becomes more advanced.

As avionics, aircraft technology and the aviation industry evolve, we can expect to see more 3D-printed electric aircraft and UAVs. But in the meantime, you can get a private jet charter quote for all your travel needs.

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