3D printing technology has been combined with printed electronic circuitry to create the world’s first fully printed hybrid structure – a 'smart' wing for an unmanned aircraft. The technology has huge potential to revolutionise manufacturing, not just for military aircraft but also for commercial aircraft, medical devices and the automotive industry.
Electronics manufacturer Optomec and 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys have joined forces to create a smart wing for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The wing has functional electronics printed directly into its structure, making the vehicle lighter as well as quicker and cheaper to manufacture and repair. Stratasys 3D printed the wing using its Fused Deposition Modeling process, then an Optomec Aerosol Jet system was used to print sensors, antennae and circuitry straight onto the wing's surface.
The upshot of all this is that the avionics systems, which control all aspects of the aircraft's flight and normally reside within the wings and fuselage, have moved into the skin of the aircraft. This saves a great deal of space within the vehicle enabling it to carry a much bigger payload. The 3D printed hybrid material also allows for a much lighter structure, reducing both the cost and environmental impact of the manufacturing process.
Although the technology is currently being used to produce military drones, the potential applications are almost endless. The ability to print electronic circuitry into complex 3D structures allows the creation of thinner, lighter, fully functional materials which are also cheaper to produce. Imagine, for instance, a car with its electronic circuitry printed into its body panels – it will be cheaper, lighter (and therefore more fuel efficient) and roomier inside than an equivalent car made in the traditional way.
by Anthony Morgan