Our engineers have designed, created and flown the world's first 'printed' aircraft, a breakthrough in three-dimensional (3D) printing techniques which could herald a revolution in the economics of aircraft design.
The Southampton team manufactured the entire structure of the unmanned craft using a laser sintering machine, which fabricates plastic or metal objects by building them up layer by layer. It is a highly efficient technique with huge potential within the aviation industry as well as a range of other fields - from racing car design to the instant production of customised medical implants.
Thanks to the relative speed of the production process, the team took just one week to design, manufacture and assemble the aircraft - something that would normally take months. The technique involves no cutting or grinding of metal, allowing the creation of shapes and structures that would usually involve costly traditional methods. Radical changes to the scale and shape of a design can be made at no extra expense because no tooling is required for manufacture.
Professor Jim Scanlan, of the University's Computational Engineering and Design research group, explains: "The aircraft's structure is very stiff and lightweight, but very complex. If it was manufactured conventionally it would require a large number of individually tailored parts that would have to be bonded or fastened at great expense."
Jim adds: "The flexibility of the laser sintering process will allow the design team to revisit historical techniques and ideas that would have been prohibitively expensive using conventional manufacturing."
The University worked on the project in partnership with 3T RPD, a company specialising in rapid product development.