Future flight: Could completely 3D printed aeroplanes be in the skies soon?

Large parts of future aeroplanes could be manufactured using 3D printer technology, although this is as long as the parts can be scaleable a leading researcher has said.

Professor of Aerospace Design at the University of Southampton, Jim Scanlan, told Factor that the future could see large parts of aeroplanes being produced using 3D printing.

He said: “There are two main issues, scale and accuracy. I can see large scale components being made. I think it will end up being processes that people use routinely.”

“Even in large UAVS most of the components are being 3D printed so we use them routinely now.”

He said Rolls Royce are also doing researching the 3D printing or turbine blades.

He says that components that are made of metal parts, with new developments, can be made at large scales.


This follows plane manufacturer Airbus signing a deal with China’s north Western Polytechnical University (NPU) to create 3D printed plane parts for the company.

Airbus will not be the first planes to usr 3D printed parts as RAF Tornado fighter jets have flown with parts made using 3D printed technology made by BAE systems.

The parts on the fighter jets were used in test flights at the end of last year and include protective covers for cockpit radios and guards for power take-off shafts.

The university said: “This project is a test for our 3D research capability and we are confident we will deliver satisfactory results on quality and on time that will establish a solid foundation for further cooperation in this field.”

Airbus says it wants to use 3D printing to manufacture individual parts or in the future even larger airframe structures.

It says it is also working towards spare part solutions which will be able to produce parts for planes that are out of production.

3D printing technology could revolutionise the manufacturing of planes as the resulting components can potentially be up to 55% lighter than those produced using traditional methods.

Although we’re not at the stage where large-scale planes can be completely printed, the first 3D printed aircraft was created three years ago by Scanlan and other engineers at the University of Southampton. 

Now they are working on a new research project where they are trying to get to the stage where they can completely print a working aircraft- which will be as big as their largest 3D printer.

Scanlan said: “The thing we are working on is the next big step as we can now quickly design and print out the structure of an aeroplane but then we spend about 3 or 4 weeks putting it together.

“Eventually you should completely be able to print out a full areoplane with all the avionics.”

Previously the engineers made a unmanned air vehicle (UAV) which has been entirely printed and it was put together using snapping techniques meaning no tools were required.

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

The UAV showed the potential to create whole aircraft out of 3D printed materials, although this is clearly a long way from commercial aircraft which can carry passengers.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Rolls Royce are currently researching the 3D printing of turbine blades and are not printing them.

3D printer image courtesy of Joseph Morris.

Video courtesy of University of Southampton 

3D Printed Human Tissue Just Got Closer to Reality

Scientists have moved a step closer to creating fully-functioning replacement tissue at the push of a button with the development of a remarkable new bioprinting method.

Developed at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the bioprinting method involves the creation of 3D tissue constructs made up of different interconnected cell types and blood vessels. This represents a major milestone in the creation of artificial tissue.

This is the first time that tissue constructs of this complexity have been produced. Previous attempts to create lab-grown tissue have been limited to very thin slices because scientists have been unable to develop a system to supply the interior cells with oxygen and nutrients or remove carbon dioxide.

The team behind the project, lead by core faculty member Dr Jennifer Lewis, created a custom 3D printer that can print multiple materials together with a very high degree of accuracy. They also created “bio-inks”, which contain key ingredients found in living tissues, and printed these to create the tissue construct.

Although the results are still in their early stages – the team still have work to do to turn the printed blood vessel lining cells into fully-working blood cells – the potential for this technology is significant.

Bioprinting: Building in Blood Vessels from Wyss Institute on Vimeo.

Writing in a release the Wyss Institute website, the Institute said that the development “represents an early but important step toward building fully functional replacements for injured or diseased tissue that can be designed from CAT scan data using computer-aided design (CAD), printed in 3D at the push of a button and used by surgeons to repair or replace damaged tissue.”

Dr Lewis agreed, saying: “This is the foundational step toward creating 3D living tissue.”

In the shorter term, the technology has the potential to be used to assess the safety of medicines, which is what Dr Lewis and her team are now focusing on. “That’s where the immediate potential for impact is,” she explained.

Bioprinting: Building with Bio-Inks from Wyss Institute on Vimeo.

Once the 3D tissue is developed sufficiently it could be used in drug development to establish possible side effects and measure the effectiveness of drug candidates. This could prove revolutionary for the pharmaceutical industry, and is something that many people have seen as a holy grail for drug development – it could reduce the time it takes to bring medicines to market and reduce or even remove the reliance on animal testing.

It could prove invaluable for scientist studying living tissue and how it heals, grows and forms tumours. “Tissue engineers have been waiting for a method like this,” said Wyss Institute founding director Dr Don Ingber.

The Wyss Institute is known for its innovations in biomimetics – the practice of taking inspiration from nature for scientific design – and has previously produced artificial jellyfish, the lung-on-a-chip and swarms of robotic insects.

Image courtesy of the Wyss Institute.