There isn’t a 3D printing trade show on the globe that doesn’t feature at least one company showcasing the benefits of the technology for the manufacture of drones, whether that’s MarkForged showing how its carbon fibre reinforcements makes for drones that can be crashed without breaking, Voxel8 showing how its multi-material 3D printing is capable of building a quadcopter with inbuilt electronics or Formlabs showing how its array of materials is used to build Marble’s topologically optimised commercial MRB-1, drones and 3D printing go together like Joffrey and some poisoned wine.
There are lots parallels when you look at the world of 3D printing and that of drones; both have seen themselves reach peak hype over the past few years, both have seen an upturn in consumer level investment without that killer application, both have seen scaremongering over security in the mainstream press, both have been around for a lot longer than most realise, both have more technical nomenclature – additive manufacturing (AM) and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and both are seeing an uptake in investment from substantial commercial and governmental operations.
The synergy between industrial AM and commercial UAVs was never more evident than at the Dubai Air Show at the back end of 2015, where Stratasys and the Aurora Flight Sciences – a leader in the advanced aerospace sector – unveiled the largest, fastest, and most complex 3D printed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) ever produced. Capable of speeds in excess of 150mph the 80% 3D printed drone was designed and built in half the time it would have taken traditionally.
“At Aurora we build drones, we've been building drones for 30 years, before it was cool,” says Dan Campbell, Aerospace Research Engineer at Aurora Flight Sciences. “We've been using 3D printing for four years but it is only over the last two years and even the last year that the business as a whole has become really interested.”
Case for the defense
Whereas lots of the 3D printed UAVs are from startups and hobbyists as Campbell says Aurora are an established player, one who, in August of 2015, won a $15.4 million contract modification on top of an initial $6 million one from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to begin moving forward with a U.S. defense research program to develop and insert new aircraft automation into existing planes and helicopters.
“A lot of the drones we make are low rate initial production, they are one offs,” explains Campbell. “Most of our costs are labour, so what we see from 3D printing is it really allows us to compress the schedule and become more efficient with the labour, which is hugely cost effective.”
With its in-house Fortus 450mc Aurora primarily uses FDM technologies and the ULTEM material, which passes several internationally recognised aerospace safety requirements. “The biggest worry I used to get from engineers was 'isn't FDM brittle?” Says Campbell. “But they’ve begun to realise that 3D printing is becoming the path of least resistance; resistance is time, money and hassle. We all gravitate towards the path of least resistance and if you don't then you become less competitive.”
Though the initial idea was that the printing of complex parts with curvature would do away with the substantial costs of tooling, Aurora are, like many companies who’ve invested in the technology, starting to see the potentials in using 3D printing for tooling. “A lot of our money comes from the Department of Defence and their research projects but for the 3D printing of tools we're putting our own money into it because we see so much promise.
“It is a learning process for us because it's not an exact replacement for aluminium tooling. We have to alter our manufacturing process to work with 3D printing tools but we're getting there.” Campbell adds.
In 2014 engineers at the University of Virginia were takes by the Department of Defense to investigate the feasibility of producing a military standard UAV using 3D printing and off-the-shelf hardware like a smartphone, it turns out it was very feasible and it was printed in little over a day at the cost of $2,500, so is 3D printing making it easy to manufacture drones?
“It takes years and years of practice to become a skilled enough tradesman to manufacture a small aircraft traditionally,” says Campbell. “With 3D printing the learning curve is much smaller. So now I'm able to design and build my own aircraft.”
As scarily easy as that sounds most people aren’t Dan Campbell, most people aren’t lead engineers at the University of Virginia, flight is not something we’re naturally gifted in. Designing a military grade aircraft is not imminently likely for the layman and though most of this article might make creating a UAV seem like a doddle, Campbell is keen to point out that the technology has its drawbacks.
“They say 3D printing offers design freedom but to really take advantage of that as an engineer I want more control over how I tell the machine to operate. In aerospace the goal is to get every single gram out so even though the software lets you do the sparse fill, you can design your wall thickness etc. I think there's still more we could do if we had more control in optimising the design.”