Thor TakeoffAirbus, a European airline company based in France, has made history thanks to their debut of the very first 3D printed plane called “Thor”.

This unique aircraft has been named THOR as short for ‘Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality’.

Airbus publicly displayed this windowless, 46 pounds (21 Kilos), 13 feet long mini-plane for the first time earlier this month – at the International Aerospace Exhibition and Air Show held in Berlin at the Schoenefeld airport.

Although this 3D printed plane looks pretty small when placed side by side with the usual size jets, it’s outright eye-catching resembling the large white airplane models.

Thor looks more like a large-sized drone with three major parts:

  • About 50 assembled 3D printed parts
  • Electrical elements (including 2 motors)
  • A remote control

The entire plane has been 3D printed from a polyamide substance except for the electrical elements. The aircraft uses two propellers and flies without a pilot so it’s essentially controlled from the ground using the remote control.

It’s no secret that Thor is not the real deal because it cannot be used for public air travel yet. However, the excitement around this drone lies in the fact that it demonstrates the Limitless Possibilities that 3D printing carries especially in regards to revolutionizing the aerospace industry. While speaking at the International Aerospace Exhibition in Berlin, Detlev Konigorski, who was in charge of developing Thor said that the 3D printed plane was actually a test of what is possible with 3D printing technology.

He went ahead to say:

“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.”

This means that if the tests which are going to be carried out using Thor produce great and reliable results, Thor will be the pioneer of a new generation of aircraft that are printed entirely through 3D printing but offer significant advantages over the traditionally manufactured airplanes.

Thor presents a future where planes will be coming straight from 3D printers and best of all – will be manufactured in a fraction of the time that is spent to manufacture them today. Before this becomes a reality, Thor will be used to conduct many aerodynamic investigations among other fairly risky activities; all of which will go to prove whether 3D printing technology can be finally relied upon for the mainstream production of aircraft.

Still, Thor shows a lot of promise. Chief Engineer Gunnar Haase, after conducting Thor’s inaugural flight back in November 2015 around the northern German city of Hamburg said:

“It flies beautifully, it is very stable”.

Light, Fast and Cheap

Despite Thor being the first plane to be printed in its entirety through the additive manufacturing technology, this is not the first time that 3D printing has been used in putting together parts for an airplane. Airbus and its American counterpart Boeing have been using 3D printing all along to create some of the parts that their big passenger jets like the Airbus A350 (With Over 1,000 3D Printed Parts) and B787 Dreamliner use.

Jens Henzler of Hofmann Innovation Group, given their in new technology had this to say:

“The printed pieces have the advantage of requiring no tools and that they can be made very quickly.”

Thor TeamHenzler also added that the all the Metal Parts produced through 3D printing typically tend to be 30%-50% lighter with practically no manufacturing wastes. There are huge benefits that come with producing lighter jets and planes.

One of the key upsides is that they use considerably less fuel than their heavier rivals. Using less fuel breeds a secondary benefit which is that the jets churn out fewer pollutants, making them more Environmentally Friendly.

Air traffic is expected to literally double over a span of 20 years. Now with the apparent ecological benefits of 3D printed planes, there is no better time to begin using 3D printing in the aerospace industry than today. Additionally, given that there are little to no wastes during the manufacturing process, many aircraft companies are likely to embrace the use of 3D printing because this decision will directly result in lower manufacturing costs.

That’s not all, manufacturing planes through 3D printing is definitely going to be a lot faster than the conventional methods which have been to a great extent; time consuming. But what does all this mean to an ordinary passenger who cares nothing about 3D printing or manufacturing planes and simply wants to just travel? Well, here’s the best part – 3D printed planes will lead to cheaper flights.

Vision 2030

If it feels like you’ve now seen everything regarding the aerial uses of the 3D printing technology, wait a minute. Engineers are currently planning to use it in Space in the foreseeable future. For instance, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that the future Ariane 6 rocket, which is going to be introduced from 2020; will have most of its parts 3D printed.

Alain Charmeau, Airbus Safran Launchers head, said while referring to the technology:

“It brings big cost reductions on parts manufacturing.”

In this regard, it’s highly likely that the Ariane 6 will have a much lower price tag compared to its predecessor – the Ariane 5. And with the new 3D printers in the market, which can print parts of up to 40 centimetres long (about 15 inches), it will be really easy to make complex designs unlike the situation was in the past.

A good example of the practicality of all this is seen when Charmeau revealed that Airbus is testing the printing of an injection assembly of an engine, which is being assembled from a total of 270 individual pieces. He adds that with the use of 3D printing, all those pieces seem like just three parts.

Overall, the air travel industry is fully convinced of reaping astounding benefits from 3D printing technology. A survey done by German high-tech federation Bitkom of 102 aviation sector players showed that at least 70% of the respondents totally believed that come year 2030, the Printing of the Spare Parts of Aircraft will be done directly in Airports. 51% of the respondents were equally persuaded that 3D printing will by then be used in the manufacturing of entire planes.

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