Aero engineers are turning to additive manufacturing for fast production and better product design. What will this mean for traditional aircraft?
At the 2016 Berlin air show in June, Airbus unveiled the first ever aircraft to be made using 3D printing. With a name derived from the phrase ‘Testing High-tech Objectives in Reality’, Thor weighs in at just 21kg and measures less than four metres in length. To observers, it resembles a large model aeroplane and was easily dwarfed by the other aircraft on show. But Airbus sees it as a testbed for a radical change in the way aircraft are built. Whereas traditional production methods such as milling involve manipulating a solid block of material, additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, ‘grows’ products by building up materials layer by layer. Taking this incremental approach, rather than using a solid block of material, allows for the creation of products with incredibly complex structures that would be very difficult to achieve, or in some cases impossible, using traditional methods.
Thor is not the only example of Airbus’s recent 3D-printed innovations – the company has also used 3D printing to attempt to replicate structures found in nature, and so create parts that are stronger yet lighter than is possible with traditional machining and assembly. “Nature has developed a lot of different design methods,” says Peter Sander, head of emerging technologies and concepts at Airbus.