Purchasing new hardware? Read our latest product comparisons

World's first 'printed' aircraft is flown


July 29, 2011

Engineers have designed and flown the world's first aircraft made using 3D printing technology

Engineers have designed and flown the world's first aircraft made using 3D printing technology

Image Gallery (3 images)

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.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Lockheed has printed airplanes prior to this team... They printed a rather large aircraft for a 3D printer several years ago...

Chris Tolman

WOW, neet, greater potential of those 3D printers then I imagined! What was the scale, size of this model? Yuo could have included a man holding the plane... (or bunch of students around :)

Martin Pernicka

That\'s a brilliant step forward - hats off to this team. Pure technology good for everything - without a marketing team labeling it the \"Eco-plane\", \"Green-3D\" or \"Low-Carbon Flyer\"

Todd Dunning

Martin, the article says it has a 2 metre wingspan. I don\'t know if they added that detail after you made your comment.


One of the most interesting articles I\'ve read here. Thanks.


Wow! With this technique a freewing VTOL aircraft could be built/tested and then scaled up for manned flight. The existing plans are not for sale and never will be. But now anyone using this can develop their own. Where do I buy the printer?

Post a Comment

Login with your Gizmag account:

Related Articles
Looking for something? Search our articles