The Future of Aviation Shaped by 3D Printing

by Abdul Rehman on October 26, 2013

Additive Printed Aviation StructureOn December 17, 1903, as the Wright brothers’ glider took to the air, a new chapter in human history began: the era of flight.

Fast forward to today’s age and flight has become extremely common.

The sky is filled with airplanes and helicopters, commercial airliners cross the whole world within hours and even wars can’t be won without jets and aerial weapons. Today, humanity is on the verge of yet another revolution in aviation as 3D printing is slowly but surely taking over traditional methods in manufacturing aircraft.

3D Printing in Aviation Today

Aviation companies such as Boeing, Airbus and GE have only recently begun using 3D printing for the manufacture of various parts in the airplanes. This is largely due to the fact that until recently, most of the 3D printers were too small to produce large parts required for building aircraft.

But as additive printing technology is advancing, more and more aviation companies are recognizing the importance of 3D printing for manufacture of important parts of their airplanes. Last November, GE Aviation Division Bought two 3D Printing Companies, Morris Technology and Rapid Quality Manufacturing.

Michael Idelchik, vice president of GE Global Research, explained the reason for this purchase in the following words:

“The potential impact of additive manufacturing is huge. A few decades in the future, we could be printing whole engines using 3D printing.”

Similarly, Airbus, one of the largest aviation companies in Europe, used 3D printed parts for its A380 airplane making it The First Plane to Use 3D Printed Parts. Airbus is now planning to make huge 3D printers, capable of printing large aircraft parts. Chinese government is also actively researching additive printing for the manufacture of parts of aircrafts.

In the 16th China High Tech Expo this year, China displayed the world’s largest Titanium Aircraft Part. On this occasion, Lu Bingheng, a member of Chinese academy of Engineering, explained the advantages of additive printing for aviation in the following words:

“With 3D printing technology, you can produce sophisticated aviation industry components in just half the time and at half the expense of traditional manufacturing methods.”

Thus, at the moment, additive printing is complementing traditional manufacturing methods in aviation.

The Future Prospects of 3D Printing in Aviation

3D printing has opened up several new possibilities in aviation that were previously impossible to imagine. These were best highlighted by Bastian Schaefer, Innovation Manager at Airbus in a presentation in which he said that Airbus Would Complete a 100% 3D Printed Jumbo Jet by 2050. Airbus states on its website:

“Close your eyes and picture an aircraft. Fast forward 40 years and think again. Do you see the same aircraft?”

We clearly do not see the same aircraft, especially if we include 3D printing in our thoughts. Below we describe how future planes will be different from our present aircraft, mainly because of 3D printing:

  • 3D Bird Like Plan DdesignLearning from Nature – A Bird-like Design: A major flaw of modern airplanes is that they are made from metal. This makes them very heavy. Due to this, a huge amount of fuel is required to keep the airplanes in the air. Birds, too, can fly. However, their bodies are extremely light because their bones are hollow.Using 3D printing, planes with the same skeleton-like structure will be made in the future, which will not only be extremely strong but also hollow just like bones of birds. These 3D printed planes would be extremely light and fuel-efficient.
  • Futuristic Plane ViewTransparent Planes – A Sublime View: Imagine yourself in a plane with a transparent roof. You can see the sky, the clouds and the stars as the plane flies gently through the air. On the ground, you can see the wonders of the world like the pyramids of Egypt as your plane passes them by. Such planes will soon become a reality. Using 3D printing, semi-solid materials can be used to make planes. This will mean that these future planes will have strength like solids and at the same time, they’ll be transparent like liquids giving a magnificent view of the surrounding environment.
  • Additive Printed Plane InteriorBuilt-in Neural Network – A Smart Plane: Bastian Schaefer says that future planes will be completely intelligent. They will have a network of neuron-like wires built into them. This means that they’ll behave more like Living Organisms than machines. They’ll see to it that every demand of the passengers are fulfilled. Moreover, because such networks will have memory, they’ll even be able to remember the passengers in the future. Imagine how nice it will be if you walk into a plane and the plane remembers your name and greets you! Present manufacturing methods don’t allow such complex networks to be embedded into airplanes. With 3D printers it is possible to integrate even most complex networks into solid objects.
  • 3D Printed EntertainmentUnmatched Entertainment – Virtual Environments Inside Planes: Another problem with flights today is that long air trips are very boring. “Sitting at one place with nothing to do” is what most of us think when we think of flights. However, this could change as well. Using Holographic/Lenticular Technologies, incorporated into planes using 3D printing, future planes could even have virtual environments inside them such as virtual golf stadiums and virtual football stadiums. Passenger will be able to enjoy long flights. It might, however, become difficult to make people leave the plane after it has landed.
  • 3D Printing and Seat DesignEnergy-Harvesting Seats – Planes Without Fuel: 3D printed planes of future will have such seats that’ll be able to harvest the heat that human beings release from their body. Normally, this heat merges with the heat of the atmosphere and is wasted. Future planes may not even require fuel; they’ll simply be able to use the heat emitted from body of passengers to run their engines.

Conclusion – Aviation Revolutionized

In conclusion, aircraft can be manufactured much more quickly and cheaply using 3D printing. Lighter, fuel-efficient planes; integrated neuronal networks; transparent planes with sublime views and virtual environments inside planes seem like dreams in our present world. Only 3D printing can ensure that future aircraft have these and many other features.

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