One of the biggest selling features for 3D printers is the fact that you can just whip up a design using CAD software on your computer, then create a physical copy of it to try out - no special factory tooling required. Well, in order to illustrate the potential of the technology for the aviation industry, engineers from the University of Southampton have just designed and flown the world's first "printed" aircraft. The entire structure of the unmanned air vehicle (UAV) was created using an EOS EOSINT P730 nylon laser sintering machine, which builds up plastic or metal parts through a successive layering technique.

The plane is named SULSA, for Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft. Once printed, the various parts of its body could simply be snapped together in a matter of minutes, without the use of tools. The resulting electric aircraft has a two-meter (6.6 foot) wingspan, an autopilot, and a top speed of almost 100 mph (161 kph). In cruise mode, it is said to be almost silent.

According to the Southampton researchers, it would normally take months to go from an initial aircraft concept to a flying prototype - using the laser sintering process, it could instead just take days. Because no production tooling is required, it also costs nothing to make changes to the finished aircraft's design, or to experiment with swapping in different parts.

The technology also allowed the team to incorporate design elements that would have proven very difficult using conventional methods. One of these was the Geodesic body structure, which was first used in 1936 in the Vickers Wellington bomber. Although it makes for a very stiff and lightweight airplane, the structure ordinarily requires a large number of parts to be individually made, then bonded or fastened together. With the sintering technique, however, it could all just be made at once.

SULSA's Spitfire-like elliptical wing planform is another example. Although such a wing design has a low coefficient of drag, it is also reportedly known for being difficult and expensive to manufacture. Once again, though, it apparently didn't pose any challenge to the laser sintering machine. Essentially, complex designs can be created just as easily and economically as conventional ones.

The project was led by Professors Andy Keane and Jim Scanlan, from Southampton's Computational Engineering and Design Research group.