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World's first 3-D printed airplane takes to the skies [Video]

August 2, 2011 |  7:46 pm

Forget about high-powered drills, metal-bending press brakes and high-pressure die casting -- all you really need to build an airplane is a 21st century printer.

A small group of aeronautical engineers at the University of Southampton sent the world's first 3-D printed aircraft into the skies above Britain, according to a report by New Scientist magazine.

Watch in New Scientist's video above as the model plane with a 6.5-foot wingspan takes to the skies with a peculiar screech and an abrupt burst of energy.

The airframe was designed on a computer then printed on a 3-D printer. If you don’t know how that works, New Scientist fills you in:

To do this, the 3-D printer first slices up an object's computerised design into hundreds of easily printable layers. Each layer is then “printed" by training a laser beam on a bed of polyamide plastic, stainless steel or titanium powder -– depending on the object being created -– tracing out the entire 2-D shape required for that layer. The laser's heat fuses the particles together at their boundaries. Once each layer is complete, more powder is scattered over it and the process repeated until a complete artefact is produced.

The designers wanted the little aircraft “to be lightweight and strong, as it would be built in just four parts -– the main fuselage and rudder fins, the nose cone and two outer wings.”

They named it Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft, or SULSA. According to the engineers, it is “the world’s first all printed aircraft -- the resulting aircraft can be fully assembled from its component parts to flight ready in just 10 minutes without the use of any tools whatsoever.”

Impressive, considering building an aircraft of any size is typically labor-intensive and utilizes components that are custom-machined and tooled. The New Scientist article says the engineers are "hoping to show how 3-D printing will revolutionise the economics of aircraft design."

According to their website, the small SULSA plane is capable of reaching speeds up to 90 mph with an endurance of about 30 minutes.


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