Despite the bursting of the recent 3D printing hype bubble, the industry is still going strong and, as Gartner’s Hype Cycle indicates, we’re currently shifting into true development mode, where the technology will improve to meet, and likely succeed, the level of hype promoted by media outlets and the like. So, though we didn’t see any 3D printed aircraft last year, we did see significant progress towards the 3D printing of aircraft parts when GE opened up a facility in Alabama to mass manufacturer its 3D printed jet engine nozzles. Other, similar endeavors have begun taking shape to see high-performance aircraft parts be produced with 3D printing this year. But when will we see entirely 3D printed airplanes (of the variety associated with Airbus’s famous rendering a few years back)? The new FAST project may have the answer.
The FAST project sees three different players in the aerospace industry team up to research the topological optimization of aerospace structures with 3D printing. Dutch aluminum company Constellium is partnering with fuselage manufacturer STELIA Aerospace and engineering firm CT INGENIERIE to examine the possibilities using 3D printing to produce large-scale aerospace structures and parts, including fuselages themselves. Because of the current size, cost, and efficiency constraints of traditional technologies, the partners believe that 3D printing could serve as a viable alternative.
Bruno Chenal, Director of R&D at Constellium Research and Technology, explains, “The goal of the FAST project is to change the way innovative technologies are implemented and to expand the usage of 3D printing. 3D printing will allow us to create metal shapes and properties that were previously impossible to produce.” He continues, “We are excited to work with one of our customers, STELIA Aerospace, to find innovative alternatives for printing aluminium and developing aerospace technologies industry wide. This innovative process further supports Constellium’s commitment to work closely with all of our customers to develop customized solutions to meet their unique needs.”
FAST is only in its early stages, but the companies involved hope to apply a holistic approach to 3D printing large-scale structures. Constellium will be the material supplier in the project, with STELIA guiding the design and production process and CT INGENIERIE optimizing the design. If they can pull it off, we may be able to see the 3D printing of some pretty big and exciting components. Maybe even entire aircraft bodies? Maybe someday!