Airbus 3D print a plane as flying testbed

The printed aircraft took off without incident The printed aircraft took off without incident
As industries push the boundaries of additive manufacturing, an Airbus engineer wanted to answer the ultimate question, ‘can you 3D print an entire aircraft?’

Like many firms, Airbus is looking at 3D printing technology with intrigue. The aerospace giant is certain the technology will have a major impact on the future design, engineering and manufacture of aircraft, but at present, it’s still very much working out where to apply the process.

While 3D printed parts and components are already being flown on production aircraft, a recent project wanted to go a step further.
Detlev Konigorski, from Airbus’ emerging technologies and concepts activity group (pictured, centre) had been pondering the question: ‘can you print an entire aircraft?’ So he decided to find out.

“There was this slogan going around the floor here, ‘print me an aeroplane’,” he says. “So I wanted to see if it is possible.”
It saw the conception of THOR (Testing High-tech Objectives in Reality), a platform to enable the low risk and fast track development of different technologies in real flying conditions.

Detlev Konigorski, centre, wanted to 3D print a flying testbed

“We needed a flying testbed for other experimental technologies we are developing,” he explains.

The team decided to produce a small pilotless aircraft, which initially sounded like a piece of cake. But reality quickly hit back.

“Having something on a computer that is printable, doesn’t mean you can actually print it,” says Konigorski. “The printer has to produce something that has to adhere to a lot of physical laws that don’t apply in cyber space.”

The difficulty is that THOR needed to keep its shape, be lightweight, stiff and be robust enough that it didn’t turn in to a one hit wonder. The team set boundaries for themselves, one of the main being that no post processing was allowed.

“One of the key things we wanted to see is if it would fly as it came out of the printer,” says Konigorski. “We wanted to find out what the status of 3D printing was with regards to quality and surface finish. That normally doesn’t matter too much, but in our case it would determine the aerodynamic performance.”

THOR weighs approximately 21kg and has a wingspan and length just under 4m. Around 90% of its structural components have been 3D printed from plastic polyamide powder using a laser sintering process, with parts such as the two 1.5kW electrically-driven propellers sourced as off the shelf parts.

A major advantage for THOR is the short lead time that 3D printing offers, which significantly reduced development time for producing the technology demonstrator compared to traditional manufacturing methods. Using an existing design concept, it took around seven weeks to print the THOR aircraft’s 60 structural segments. This was followed by approximately one week for assembly and three days to fine tune the electrical systems. It was then flight-ready.

Ready for take-off
“The first flight was simply about flying,” says Konigorski. “We wanted to generate basic data on things like altitude, speed and acceleration in a turn.”

Airbus are printing metal and polymer parts for structural and non-structural applications

Following on, THOR is currently being iterated and optimised. One of the challenges initially was the use of many hollow parts, and given the fast nature of development, many lessons were carried on to the next development.

The iterated THOR aircraft features a modular design that allows greater flexibility in the airframe. For example, the second version of THOR accommodates interchangeable wings.

Once testing is complete, the THOR project will change focus away from 3D printing to explore a different, more abstract concept altogether. THOR will have ‘artificial intelligence’ systems placed on board to evaluate if a computer can do more on existing flights, work with pilots and even if they can one day take over from pilots completely.

The work is in collaboration with the Airbus Defence and Space business unit of the Airbus Group’s parent company. The idea is for a THOR aircraft to land completely on its own, identify obstacles on the runway and determine whether it is safe to touch down without support from any ground infrastructure.

Skies the limit?
The THOR project is a demonstration of the aerospace industries ongoing interest in additive manufacturing technologies. It has seen Airbus set up an additive layer manufacturing initiative – to create a group of experts and competencies from engineering, manufacturing and procurement to define a vision, strategy and roadmap for applying 3D printing technologies.

This approach aims to accelerate the company’s technical and industrial competencies and bring together research and technology activities directly with active programmes.

Jerome Rascol, who heads this additive layer manufacturing initiative, says: “I can see Airbus manufacturing a ‘bionic’ aircraft based on 3D printing in the future, so we’re taking a pragmatic, step-by-step approach.”

Airbus is not just interested in developing the capability of polymer based additive manufacturing technologies, either. It recently published work on what it calls, ‘investments in revolutionary additive layer manufacturing technologies (3D printing)’, which features many parts made in metal. For example, some 2,700 plastic parts have been produced by additive manufacturing for the A350 XWB programme, but Airbus is also working closely with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to qualify titanium components produced from additive manufacturing technologies.

“There are surely applications and paradigm changes we have not thought of yet,” explains Rascol. “We are thinking every day about ways to 3D print tomorrow’s technology for airframes, cabins and systems.”

This forward looking strategy focuses on developing methods, tools and training for 3D printing; supporting the wider application of additive manufacturing technologies in Airbus’ supply chain; as well as cooperating with airworthiness authorities to quality materials and processes for certification

The THOR mentality

Airbus 3D print increasing amounts of flying parts

An important aspect of the THOR project is the team’s ‘willingness-to-fail,’ which helps Airbus push the envelope of experimentation. The goal is simple: implement high-risk ideas on flying vehicles, as soon as possible.

“If a THOR aircraft takes off, and after 30 feet makes a nose dive back to the ground, our attitude is: ‘Good! Let’s sweep it off the runway and come up with a better idea,’” says project leader, Detlev Konigorski, from Airbus’ emerging technologies and concepts activity group. After all, he says, “in a few weeks, we can print a new aircraft!”

Justin Cunningham

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