3-D-Printed Airplanes?

Orlando, Fla.—Technology could soon make combat aircraft considerably less costly for friend and foe alike. Remotely piloted aircraft will likely cost “one-third to one-half” as much as manned aircraft in the near future, said Northrop Grumman executive Christopher Bowie. That’s not just because of the absence of onboard human-support systems, but also due to increased availability for use and fewer losses in accidents, he said at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium here on Thursday during a panel discussion on the revolution in modern weapons. More profound will be the effect of “additive,” or 3-D, printing of parts, which has the potential to “completely disrupt and enhance the manufacturing economy,” said Bowie. Northrop Grumman is using titanium in 3-D printing; Boeing is flying more than 200 3-D-printed parts on 10 different aircraft, he said. One huge cost-cutter: instead of laboriously threading wire bundles through bulkheads, “you could theoretically print the wiring loads into the structure, and, in fact, potentially print apertures, radar, and so forth,” said Bowie. This “could radically reduce the cost of the aircraft,” he said. Later, this could lead to “a whole new force posture” because “if a 3-D printer can print an airplane, it can print itself,” said Bowie. This may have already been done in Britain, he noted.