Airbus reveals 3D printed plane

Aerospace company Airbus has a revealed an aircraft that is almost entirely made of 3D printed components.

Called Project Thor (Test of High-tech Objects in Reality), the 4m, 21kg experimental aircraft was displayed at this year’s ILA Berlin Air Show.

Detlev Konigorski, leader of Project Thor, said the drone would be used to test “very, very unconventional ideas” that are too experimental to test safely on manned aircrafts. Part of the project will include expanding the use of 3D printing as a tool for manufacturing and distribution in aviation.

“In the future one of the major questions that need to be considered for the supply chain, will we really receive hardware, or will we just received the CAD [computer assisted design] files?” said Konigorski.

Project Thor's aim is to test the extent to which 3D printed parts can be used to improve commercial aircraft, but Konigorski warned there were risks around quality.

“When we are transferring something like [a CAD] file to Singapore for printing over there, we will need to make sure that the product that comes out of the printer in Singapore has the same quality standard as the part that would be flying from Wulsbüttel right now,” he said.

Already 3D printed components such as doorstops, fuel connectors and brackets are used in commercial aeroplanes.

“There are quite a number of real world components that are already in flight on vehicles but this is now, let's say ramping up more and more. Every few weeks we have a new component which could be 3D printed,” said Konigorski. He expects the speed and capabilities of 3D printing technology to continue improving exponentially.

Konigorski said there were other issues that needed to be ironed out before the technology was more widely adopted in aviation. Compatibility between printers need to be assured and security and safeguards against counterfeit parts established.

“If someone else is picking up one of these files transferred that would basically mean someone else might produce a part, just as today already there are also fake parts available,” Konigorski said.

He added: “Of course there’s also a big pull to get this in all fields as quick as possible. On the other hand somebody needs to clear the minefield first and understand where are the things that you need to take care of to make it happen. We are in the aviation industry and nothing will go operational until we really have checked this out internally 200 times.”

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