Dwarfed by huge jets all around, the mini-plane Thor was nonetheless an eye-catcher at the Berlin air show this week - the small Airbus marvel is the world's first 3D-printed aircraft. Windowless, weighing in at just 21 kilograms and less than 4 meters long, the drone Thor - short for Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality - resembles a large, white model airplane. Yet to the European aerospace giant Airbus, the small pilotless propeller aircraft is a pioneer that offers a taste of things to come - an aviation future when 3-D printing technology promises to save time, fuel and money.
"This is a test of what's possible with 3-D printing technology," said Detlev Konigorski, who was in charge of developing Thor for Airbus, speaking at the International Aerospace Exhibition and Air Show at Berlin's southern Schoenefeld Airport. "We want to see if we can speed up the development process by using 3-D printing not just for individual parts but for an entire system."
In Thor, the only parts that are not printed from a substance called polyamide are the electrical elements. Airbus and its U.S. rival Boeing are already using 3-D printing, notably to make parts for their huge A350 and B787 Dreamliner passenger jets. "The printed pieces have the advantage of requiring no tools and that they can be made very quickly," said Jens Henzler of Bavaria-based Hofmann Innovation Group, which specializes in the new technology. The metal parts produced can also be 30 percent to 50 percent lighter than in the past, and there is almost zero manufacturing waste, according to Henzler, who is managing director for Hofmann industrial prototyping. The sky is not the limit for the technology, with engineers also planning to use it in space. The European Space Agency's (ESA) future Ariane 6 rocket, set to blast off in 2020, is set to feature many printed pieces.