3D Printing Poses Big Benefits for Drone Manufacturers
3D Printing Stories
Two of the biggest newsmakers in technology today are unmanned aircraft systems (drones) and 3D printers.
What many might not know is that 3D printers are making it possible to lower overall design and development costs for drones while increasing opportunities for customization and applications. With more than 200 of its aircraft already in use, Netherlands-based Aerialtronics is poised to offer drone systems for a range of applications including infrastructure inspection and mapping to livestock monitoring and creative filming for advertising and marketing.
As a small company with only 35 employees, a major hurdle for Aerialtronics is the cost-effective ability to meet the drone requirements of a variety of industries without dissipating its resources on dozens of discrete designs.
Customizing drones for customers and applications
“We have basically developed a concept that uses a standard platform and is customizable to individual customers and applications,” said Joost Hezemans, Head Designer at Aerialtronics.
“The result of our development is the Altura Zenith. Specially tailored options include the number and power of motors, the payload capacity, flight times and variations of required software systems.”
Working closely with Stratasys, the company ultimately built in-house 3D printing operations with a uPrint SE Plus 3D Printer by Stratasys at the core. Customized pieces including motor housings, different gimbals, as well as boxes and enclosures for hardware and software – all of which need to be designed and prototyped.
Prior to adopting the Stratasys uPrint SE Plus 3D Printer, the process was costly and inefficient. “Developing even these limited variations required many design iterations requiring prototype models,” Hezemans said. “The process was slow and expensive.”
“Since taking control of our own 3D printing requirements, we have eradicated the lengthy lead times we previously had to endure and have cut our R&D time by about 50 percent,” Hezemans said.
Ease of operation is a big win
“We liked the ease of operation and how CAD designs could be fed into the Stratasys 3D Printer. The ABSplus material also has the right strength – about 90 percent of final materials – and weight characteristics perfect for us to build a full flying prototype,” Hezemans points out.
“A further benefit of ABSplus material is that we can use it for the production of customized parts,” Hezemans said. “The motors, for example, can generate a lot of heat, so it’s critical to have a material that can withstand it while also possessing the right strength and weight characteristics. The 3D-printed ABSplus motor mounts have those properties.”
Aerialtronics uses 3D printing to produce different types of final-use “add-on” parts that vary in size according to the specific application needs of customers.
These typically include 3D-printed parts to house different-sized sensor equipment, video downlink and GPS systems, as well as a variety of boxes to accommodate cabling and electronic components. Using 3D printing also gave designers and engineers more time to refine components.
Speeding up the process yields 5 to 10 iterations
“With the uPrint 3D printer, we can adjust a design one day and 3D print new parts overnight, test it, tweak it some more, and print another to test the next day,” Hezemans said. “This process means that designs have gone through between five and 10 more iterations than before. We have been able to 3D print more, see more and fly more than previously possible, and thanks to 3D printing, the product is much better.”
Aerialtronics’ aircraft are already in use by police and emergency services, utility companies and other organizations.
“Stratasys’ 3D printing technology helped us advance the design and development of the Altura Zenith drone far more quickly and at a much lower cost than would have been achievable with conventional methods,” Hezemans said. “Using the uPrint SE Plus for design development, prototyping and production of customized parts, we are able to build drones that meet the current and future specifications of our customers – no matter how diverse they might be.”