Is there anything that 3D printing can’t make? From photorealistic replicas of long-dead icemen to entire segments of the human heart, it seems as if the sky’s the limit. In fact, the sky’s exactly where the next 3D marvel is heading: Airbus has just unveiled the world’s first 3D-printed aircraft, constructed in just 4 weeks.
Named Thor, this small propeller plane is only 4 meters (13 feet) long, and weighs less than 21 kilograms (46 pounds). Only the electrical elements within the aircraft were not 3D printed, but everything else was, from the wings to the fuselage.
“This is a test of what's possible with 3D printing technology,” said Detlev Konigorski, Thor’s lead developer for Airbus, at the International Aerospace Exhibition and Air Show at Berlin's southern Schoenefeld airport, as reported by Gadgets 360. “We want to see if we can speed up the development process by using 3D printing not just for individual parts but for an entire system.”
You won’t fit many passengers inside this particular plane just yet, unfortunately. Schwarzbild Medien/F. Foring/Airbus Group
Far from being just a cool-looking scale model of an aircraft, this little pilotless plane, controlled remotely, has been shown to fly. Its inaugural flight took place near Hamburg last November, with the project’s chief engineer Gunnar Haase taking control from the ground.
Right now, it’s more of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or a “drone”, than a true plane. However, it serves as a hint as to what’s to come next. Just last week, Airbus filed a patent for a 3D printing process that would be capable of 3D printing an entirely functional and fully operational aircraft.
Thor, which is an acronym for “Test of High-text Objectives in Reality”, is a logical step up from what both Airbus and its US rival Boeing are already doing – 3D printing parts for their A350 and B787 passenger jets, respectively. Each component requires no tools and can be assembled incredibly quickly.
It’s very likely that, not before long, it won’t be unusual to be flying around in aircraft that are almost entirely 3D printed. The sky may not be the limit for much longer: the future Ariane 6 rocket belonging to the European Space Agency, set to launch in 2020, will feature several 3D-printed components.