A plane you can print

An unmanned aircraft made from “printed” parts rather than traditional machine-tooled components has been unveiled at the Farnborough Air Show, UK.

A plane you can print

Developed at Lockheed Martin’s top-secret “Skunk Works” research facility in Palmdale, California, US, the Polecat unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a 28-metre flying wing, weighing four tonnes. It was designed in part to test cheaper manufacturing technologies.

The Skunk Works is no stranger to advanced technology: its successful designs include the ultra-high-altitude U2 spyplane, the SR71 Blackbird – a spyplane which can travel at more than three times the speed of sound – and the radar-invisible F117 stealth fighter.

But speed and stealth performance are not everything: cost matters too. And since UAVs tend to crash more often than piloted planes, the race is on among UAV makers to make them cheaper. The Skunk Works thinks a technique called 3D rapid prototyping, or “3D printing”, is the best way to lower costs.

Desktop rapid prototyping machines are based on desktop printing technology. They are no larger than a photocopier, run just as cleanly and quietly and have a number of advantages over other rapid prototyping techniques, Such as Selective Laser Sintering.

You don’t need to be DuPont, but the equipment is expensive enough that using it for business is probable.

There are other Printer related metal fabrication technologies such as laser and plasma sheet cutters that can be purchased for under ten thousand dollars.

These machines are cheaper than a car, some even cheaper than a motorcycle. So I guess if you are a serious enough hobbyist these technologies could actually make sense.

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