3-D Printing Takes Off for 2 UVA Students

Posted: Updated:

Last spring, two University of Virginia students responded to a vague email about an internship that turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime. Now, they've designed and flown a plastic plane that's the first of its kind.

Brothers and lab partners Steven Easter and Jonathan Turman were challenged to design a 3-D printed plane by the nonprofit MITRE Corporation, which conducts research and advises the federal government.

"We were like wow that's really cool we get to 3-D print a plane, we see these 3-D printers all the time, but we hadn't yet got a chance to use them," said Easter.

The plane is made of ABS plastic, and was printed on a three dimensional printer in an engineering lab at UVA. It is the first 3-D printed plane ever known to have been built and flown, and it could have groundbreaking implications.

"A lot of the geometry on this plane you couldn't make using other manufacturing technologies," said Turman.

Once they're printed, the pieces of the plane snap together like Legos. Parts can easily be replaced if they're not efficient or if they're broken. The blue pieces of the plane are replacement parts that were installed after a test flight crash.

"This process allows us to completely eliminate the supply chain so we're in total control of the design and the manufacturing of the aircraft," said David Shiffler, a UVA engineering professor and the project adviser. "So that means we can change them as we see fit and produce them on the spot."

The technology could help the military and the government reduce operating costs. It could also be used to get a feel for the flow of traffic, conduct academic research or collect environmental data, Easter explained.

"It could be used for aerial surveillance, so for forest fires or for patrolling the border," said Easter.

"You could imagine something like this being used to check the nuclear fallout from Japan."

Turman says that 3-D printing "is on the cusp." The 3-D printing industry is where the computer industry was in the eighties. So just a few years down the road, you could be printing your own 3-D gadgets.

Easter and Turman are now working on a second version of the plane that is streamlined and even more efficient. The new version is expected to be finished this summer.