3D Printing Revolution Underway
With the ever expanding and affordable array of 3D printers (also known as rapid prototyping machines) new opportunities abound. I first covered 3D printing back in 2007. Since that time The New York Times has run a number of articles on 3D printing (Don't believe me? Then try searching Google for 3d printing site:nytimes.com) - an indication if ever it were needed that 3D printing has gone mainstream and entered the public's consciousness. So enough with all this virtual engineering, at some point you have to get physical and the 3D printing revolution is a great place to start.
The recent announcement by a team at Southampton University that designed, built, and successfully flew the world's first printed (laser sintered) aircraft sounds like an impressive achievement in and of itself. However, equally impressive was the fact that the method of manufacture allowed the use of a design that was previously considered prohibitively expensive. The designers used a complex geodetic (or geodesic) structure that is extremely difficult to manufacture using a traditional approach, but for the 3D printer they used it was easy. Add this to the low drag, elliptical wings, which is another structure difficult to manufacture without 3D printing, and you start to appreciate the new and exciting opportunities that 3D printing opens up.
So not only does 3D printing open the door to rapid physical realization of 3D virtual models, but it also allows engineers to experiment with new and novel structures.
Running a little further into the future with the printed aircraft example, I can foresee portable 3D printers that allow users to print aircraft as needed in the field. Or imagine a modular aircraft that you can print for a specific task and then throw away. Need a surveillance pod to carry your Flip video camera? Just print it off and snap it in place. What if you could make modifications to a parameterized aircraft that could then be infinitely customizable for any airborne task at hand? Imagine being able to proportionally increase the wing area to carry a larger engine and payload in an instant.
3D printing is an exciting field that is only just beginning to tap into the unlimited potential of mass participation and ideas. If you couple 3D printing with the latest CAE tools, such as Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), you have the start of a revolution on your hands - rapid evaluation and realization of novel ideas for anyone.