According to some tech-watchers, 3-D printing will be the Next Big Thing. Load a bunch of raw material into your home mini-factory, download a 3-D CAD file, fire up the machine, and voilà, out comes a replacement part for your refrigerator or a copy of your door key (running to the hardware store is so 20th century).
Aerospace manufacturers are looking into 3-D printing for making airplane parts, but a team at the University of Southampton just did them one better. They printed an entire airplane that can snap together in 10 minutes, no tools or conventional fasteners required, then fly away at 90 miles per hour—which is just what their five-foot-wingspan SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) did on June 8 over a field in southern England.
Andy Keane, a professor of computational engineering at Southampton, says the parts list for SULSA amounts to just 14 pieces: four structural parts, an avionics tray, a propeller with motor, two batteries, four servos, a receiver and an autopilot/aerial. The structural parts were printed by a laser sintering machine that uses heat to fuse nylon powder, layer by layer, into the desired solid shape.
According to Keane, “The entire design project, from inception to flight test, took four weeks for a team of six people, none of whom was working on this project full time.”
New Scientist has video of the flight: