World’s first ‘printed’ aircraft

July 28, 2011

SULSA is the world's first "printed" aircraft (credit: University of Southampton)

Engineers at the University of Southampton have designed and flown the world’s first “printed” aircraft, which could revolutionize the economics of aircraft design, the engineers say.

The SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) plane is an unmanned air vehicle (UAV), with its entire structure printed. This includes wings, integral control surfaces, and access hatches. It was printed on an EOS EOSINT P730 nylon laser sintering machine, which fabricates plastic or metal objects, building up the item layer-by-layer.

It took only 48 hours to print. No fasteners were used and all equipment was attached using “snap fit” techniques so the entire airframe could be put together without tools in about 30 seconds, according to Prof. Andy Keane. The aircraft took around 8 person weeks. It passed tests for speed, maneuverability, and climb rates.

Prof. Andy Keane (credit: University of Southhampton)

“The great attraction is the fully automated manufacture with guaranteed quality and very simply assembly — weight is comparable to other systems since reduced strength of nylon compare to CFRP is compensated for by structural design sophistication,” Keane told KurzweilAI.

.The electric-powered aircraft, with a 2-meter wingspan, has a top speed of nearly 100 miles per hour, but when in cruise mode is almost silent. The aircraft is also equipped with a miniature autopilot.

Laser sintering allows the designer to create shapes and structures that would normally involve costly traditional manufacturing techniques. This technology allows a highly-tailored aircraft to be developed from concept to first flight in days, the engineers said.

So when can we fly in one? “This process is currently size limited to UAVs, as SLS machines cannot build parts more than a meter across. As the machines get bigger so will the aircraft,” said Keane.