It’s been used to make a car, a lawnmower, and even a castle, but now 3D printing has been used to make something with even loftier goals – a mini-plane that actually flies.
Making its big debut at the recent Berlin Air Show, Airbus’ mini-plane Thor lived up to the hype. It may not be flashy, and it may not be big (it weighs less than 46 pounds and stretches less than 13 feet long), but the plane sets the stage for the changing world of aviation.
All About Thor – The Airbus 3D Drone
Just like the superhero, Thor is mighty and could change the face of an industry. The pilotless propeller drone’s name is actually short for “Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality.” 3D printing has been used to create pieces of planes in the past, such as on Boeing’s B787 Dreamliner and Airbus’s A350, who each use upwards of 1,000 3D printed pieces, but this is the first time an entire aircraft has been created on a 3D printer. Created by aerospace giant Airbus, the only aspect of Thor that wasn’t made on the printer is the electrical system, for obvious reasons, which is made from polyamide. There aren’t any windows, fancy designs, or bells and whistles, but Thor is a star that is getting plenty of attention on its own.
Thor isn’t just for show – it can actually fly and has performed remarkably well in tests over Germany. The remote-controlled drone had its first successful flight last November. Engineers report that the plane is very stable and has exceeded expectations. Going forward, Thor will serve as a test plane for more dangerous maneuvers and to see just exactly what 3D printed drones are capable of.
3D Printing Will Change the Future of Aviation
Aircraft are notoriously expensive and time consuming to build, but Thor could change all that. Pieces created on a 3D printer are 30%-50% lighter than their traditional counterparts, meaning there is less drag on the plane and less fuel is required. That also means there are less pollutants released from the plane’s engine, which greatly helps the environment. Because 3D printing is so precisely designed and implemented, there isn’t any of the manufacturing waste traditionally made when pieces are cut out of large sheets of metal or other materials. And with no tools required except the printer, 3D aircraft pieces can be manufactured much more quickly—the only thing holding back progress is the speed of the printer, which is increasing with each new model.
What’s next for Thor and 3D aviation printing? Airbus wants to cut down on the number of printed pieces it takes to make Thor. Instead of the current 270 now required for Thor’s engine, the company is developing an injection printing system that could cut it down to just three parts. Other companies are also hastening their 3D printing applications, which could soon create more competition for Airbus in the drone and small plane market. Now that companies have seen that an entirely 3D printed plane is possible, they are sure to step up their game and continue innovating.
Indeed, with 3D printing and the success of Thor, the sky’s the limit for what technology can do. Concepts from Thor are even breaking out of the atmosphere: The European Space Agency is set to launch the Ariane 6 rocket in 2020 with multiple 3D printed pieces on board. For the ESA, the most enticing aspect of using 3D technology was the significantly cheaper price tag. The lightweight nature also makes it easier to take to space, where every ounce matters. It’s easy to assume that other aerospace and aviation companies will have the same thought process and continue the growth of 3D printing in all kinds of aspects.
With 3D printing, there’s no limit to how aviation could grow and become more sustainable, environmentally conscious, and budget friendly. Within just a few decades, we could have passenger aircraft made entirely on 3D printers manufactured directly at airports, therefore cutting down on cost, manufacturing time, and transportation delays. There’s no telling what aviation could look like in just a few years, so for now we watch the skies for Thor and admire the innovation.