Skip to Content

Printing Parts

Systems that print mechanical components with metal ­powder could be used to build lighter, more efficient airplanes.
August 23, 2011

Chris Turner, an engineer at EADS Innovation Works near Bristol, England, twists a lever on a boxy black machine, and a porthole opens to reveal a dark cavity with a floor covered in gray powder. An invisible beam sweeps across the powder, and sparks fly. The box is an additive-layer manufacturing machine, sometimes known as a 3-D printer, and it is making a small part for an Airbus A380 airliner. EADS, which owns Airbus, hopes the device can transform manufacturing. Among other things, it could produce parts that make airplanes lighter, so they use less fuel.

3-D printers can make complex shapes that can’t be manufactured with conventional techniques. Until recently, however, they couldn’t print strong, durable objects. The machine Turner is using can make intricate forms out of high-grade metal, an advance that has allowed researchers to apply the design possibilities of 3-D printing to mechanical parts. The printers use software that works out where the parts need to bear loads and places material just in those areas, halving the weight of the complete part without sacrificing strength. That saves energy, metal, and money. The complex, curving forms that result couldn’t be cast in a mold or carved out of a larger block even with the most advanced computer-controlled tools, but they can be printed in a succession of layers tens of micrometers thick.

Turner is testing whether printed parts can stand up to use in airliners, helicopters, and spacecraft. “Once we know that, we can scale up,” he says. “We could adapt this to make large aircraft components.” The possibilities include wing spars, the long beams that support wings.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.