Can a plane that was almost completely 3D printed really fly? It can, Airbus proved it with Thor - which stands for “Testing High-Tech Objectives in Reality”. The printed plane, which measures approximately 4x4 metres, completed its first test flight in Stade in November 2015 and is now flying regularly at Faßberg in Lüneburg Heath. So far it is remote controlled and later this year it will even fly autonomously. And research on the 3D Airbus continues.
Challenge: Saving costs and reducing pollutants
Why is Airbus interested in printed planes? Because additive manufacturing processes have the potential to revolutionise entire industries. Scientists and engineers expect a clear cost advantage from the 3D printing process. Components produced by 3D printing are stable and even lighter than conventionally manufactured components. The lighter the plane, the less fuel it needs – this saves money and reduces pollutant emissions. In addition, the innovative technology enables the fast, flexible, and exact production of components on site. Yet until now, it was only possible to print individual parts. When will the first commercial aircraft come out of the printer?
Solution: Will a complete commercial aircraft be printed by 2025?
A groundbreaking innovation in the aviation industry: The good 60 structural elements – wings, fuselage, tail units – were manufactured in the Laser Zentrum Nord in Hamburg in just four weeks. In this process, pulverised raw material is melted by a laser beam and merged in millimetre-thin layers to form a component. This produces time savings of around 90 percent and 75 percent lower costs.
Experts estimate that commercial aircraft with printed bionic components could be produced as early as 2025. The current circular frames and cross braces will serve as a “skeleton” with quasi-natural reinforcements made from printed nodes with conventional welded connection profiles.
However, passenger transport is not the Thor project’s immediate goal. The point is rather to test new technologies. For example, in the second Thor model, interchangeable wings will be used to test shapes and materials. The use of artificial intelligence is also foreseen. In cooperation with the space and military technology division of the Airbus Group, Thor shall be able to land completely autonomously. A revolution in Hamburg, the aviation hub!
High-calibre partners and important drivers of these future technologies, such as the Centre for Applied Aviation Research (ZAL) and the Laser Zentrum Nord (LZN), are located here – there’s a reason why Hamburg is the largest German civil aviation industry hub and along with Toulouse, Europe’s most important.
Potential: Application in various different industries
The model airplane shows 3D printing’s potential for the aviation industry. And this innovative technology is not just applicable in aviation – it can be used in almost every industry – from mechanical engineering to logistics to medical technology. Hamburg could become Germany’s leading 3D printing hub. When required, Laser Zentrum Nord in Hamburg Bergedorf offers an overview of many of these 3D printing research activities “around Hamburg” – smart potential solutions for the aviation of the future.