A research team at the University Southampton have built a functioning aircraft from a 3D printer. Though it's a fraction of the size of a normal aircraft (its wingspan is 2m), future plane designs might find the design techniques valuable.
Eurekalert says that the team used a laser sintering machine, which assembles objects layer by layer from metal or plastic. And because of the manufacturing method, they were able to make changes to the design on the fly with minimal time or money expense.
Laser sintering allows the designer to create shapes and structures that would normally involve costly traditional manufacturing techniques. This technology allows a highly-tailored aircraft to be developed from concept to first flight in days. Using conventional materials and manufacturing techniques, such as composites, this would normally take months. Furthermore, because no tooling is required for manufacture, radical changes to the shape and scale of the aircraft can be made with no extra cost.
Once finished, the plane was able to travel as fast as 160km/h and could even fly itself, thanks to an autopilot module. The plane's wing was modelled after that of the the legendary Spitfire plane, whose elliptical wing is considered too difficult and expensive to make using standard techniques. But using the laser sintering method, it became much easier. Ultimately, it would be amazing to see this new way of designing aircraft lead to breakthroughs in larger planes that people actually fly in. [Eurekalert via PopSci]