Future flight: Could completely 3D printed aeroplanes be in the skies soon?

Large parts of future aeroplanes could be manufactured using 3D printer technology, although this is as long as the parts can be scaleable a leading researcher has said.

Professor of Aerospace Design at the University of Southampton, Jim Scanlan, told Factor that the future could see large parts of aeroplanes being produced using 3D printing.

He said: “There are two main issues, scale and accuracy. I can see large scale components being made. I think it will end up being processes that people use routinely.”

“Even in large UAVS most of the components are being 3D printed so we use them routinely now.”

He said Rolls Royce are also doing researching the 3D printing or turbine blades.

He says that components that are made of metal parts, with new developments, can be made at large scales.


This follows plane manufacturer Airbus signing a deal with China’s north Western Polytechnical University (NPU) to create 3D printed plane parts for the company.

Airbus will not be the first planes to usr 3D printed parts as RAF Tornado fighter jets have flown with parts made using 3D printed technology made by BAE systems.

The parts on the fighter jets were used in test flights at the end of last year and include protective covers for cockpit radios and guards for power take-off shafts.

The university said: “This project is a test for our 3D research capability and we are confident we will deliver satisfactory results on quality and on time that will establish a solid foundation for further cooperation in this field.”

Airbus says it wants to use 3D printing to manufacture individual parts or in the future even larger airframe structures.

It says it is also working towards spare part solutions which will be able to produce parts for planes that are out of production.

3D printing technology could revolutionise the manufacturing of planes as the resulting components can potentially be up to 55% lighter than those produced using traditional methods.

Although we’re not at the stage where large-scale planes can be completely printed, the first 3D printed aircraft was created three years ago by Scanlan and other engineers at the University of Southampton. 

Now they are working on a new research project where they are trying to get to the stage where they can completely print a working aircraft- which will be as big as their largest 3D printer.

Scanlan said: “The thing we are working on is the next big step as we can now quickly design and print out the structure of an aeroplane but then we spend about 3 or 4 weeks putting it together.

“Eventually you should completely be able to print out a full areoplane with all the avionics.”

Previously the engineers made a unmanned air vehicle (UAV) which has been entirely printed and it was put together using snapping techniques meaning no tools were required.

The electric-powered aircraft, with a 2-metres wingspan, has a top speed of nearly 100 miles per hour, but when in cruise mode is almost silent.

The UAV showed the potential to create whole aircraft out of 3D printed materials, although this is clearly a long way from commercial aircraft which can carry passengers.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Rolls Royce are currently researching the 3D printing of turbine blades and are not printing them.

3D printer image courtesy of Joseph Morris.

Video courtesy of University of Southampton 

Driverless Cars: Could Vehicle Ownership be Relegated to History?

Driverless cars could eventually result in the death of car ownership, according to Phil Williams, project manager of the Technology Strategy Board special interest group Robotics and Autonomous Systems.

Williams, who was speaking at RE.WORK’s AI & Robotics Innovation Forum, said: “The likelihood is that we will see a reduction of car ownership”.

He said that transport was likely to move towards being a service. “Today it’s called a taxi,” he added. “In 10 or 15 years time it might be an easy car.”

This change would be likely to come about because payment-per-trip would increasingly become the most affordable option. Williams highlighted how insurance, MOT and road tax are already proving too expensive for some, and suggested that as driverless cars became mainstream they would make the cost of individual journeys much cheaper.

The percentage of young people learning to drive in developed countries has been on the decline over the past few years, a trend that experts are connecting with rising costs of car ownership and driving lessons and the increase of online activities.


Hugo Elias, senior engineer at Shadow Robot Company, also indentified a likely move towards driverless taxis and away from ownership.

“By 2020 every car manufactured in the past 10 years will be driverless, 10 years after than perhaps all cars will be driverless,” he said.

“Perhaps at some point in the future almost nobody will own their own cars.”

He argued that this could result in fewer cars in operation. Unlike now where most cars spend a large percentage of their service life sat in garages or driveways, driverless taxis could run almost all of the time, meaning a smaller number would be needed for the same number of people.

This, Elias believes, could have an impact on the design of cities. There would be a move away from car-centric cities such as Los Angles, and a rise in smaller cities built to accommodate pedestrians and bikes, such as Amsterdam, the Netherlands.


However, Paul Newman, BP professor of information engineering at the University of Oxford, was keen to stress that fully driverless cars that would operate completely autonomously were a long way from being a reality.

“This is a technology that’s going to blend over time. It’s not going to be a step change,” he said.

Newman, who is involved in the development of the first road-legal driverless car in the UK, argued that the technology that is underdevelopment at present is “hands-free driving” that still requires drivers to be alert and ready to take control.

“Insurance will disable the car if you sleep in it,” he said.

He did concede that truly driverless technology could eventually be possible, but argued that this was a very long time away. Newman said: “Maybe many, many, many, many years down the line you may not be facing forwards.”

Images courtesy of Mike and Maaike.