3D Printing and the Manufacture of Drones
Human life and human society have come a long way regarding technological advancements. From simple innovations such as the wheel to more complex changes such as the computer, technology is revolutionizing the way people perform their day to day activities not only in the United States but also in all other parts of the world.
Drone technology, for example, is already creating a buzz in literally every aspect of human life and many experts have deemed this the “drone age.” Although most people associate drones with unmanned aerial systems, there are also drones for the sea (unmanned surface vehicles) and even drones for use on land (unmanned ground vehicles). Whatever the case, drones have emerged as an integral part of a wide range of human activities including warfare, law enforcement activities, disaster response and management, business and other economic events as well as in recreational activities.
3-D Printing Technology
Drone technology is not the only game-changing technology in the world right now, as a matter of fact, there is a relatively newer technology; 3D printing which is also known as additive manufacturing. Although the buzz around 3D printing technology is relatively new, the truth is that the technology emerged in the 80’s.
3D printing is defined as the process through which a digital file is used to make a three-dimensional solid object. The creation of stable purposes is possible with the help of additive processes. The process of 3D printing involves cutting the digital 3D design file into thin horizontal cross-sectional layers which are then fed to the 3D printer. The method of reducing the design into segments is known as slicing and is done with the help of slicing software.
3D technology is rapidly developing, and this has affected the entire 3D printing industry tremendously. Many experts and analysts have projected enormous growth for the industry. A 2015 Wohlers Report expected revenues in the industry to grow from $3.07 billion in 2013 to over $21 billion in 2020.
The growth of the 3D printing industry is also reflected in the manner in which people are incorporating the technology into various applications and activities in their day to day activities. Indeed, it is now possible to use 3D printing technology in fields such as education, prototyping, medicine and in a wide range of manufacturing activities including in the manufacture of drones.
Additive manufacturing is used for the prototyping and production of drone parts. It is mainly growing in popularity among hobby drone enthusiasts who view it as an easy way to not only get replacements parts for the drones with much more ease but also as a way of designing and customizing their drones. In a recent SmarTech Markets report published in July 2017, it was projected that the overall worth of 3D printing in drone manufacturing would surpass $2.3 billion in the next ten years. This is a clear indication that the drone industry and drone community is bound to incorporate 3D printing in increased capacities.
Advantages of Using Additive Manufacturing in the Manufacture of Drones
The growing presence of 3D printing technology in the making of drones is down to some reasons;
1. The Ability to Customize
One of the most significant benefits of 3D printing is that it allows people to customize any object that they make the use of the technology. As previously mentioned, the process of 3D printing starts with digital design. It is possible to alter this design based on individual needs and preferences subsequently printing out a product that is individually unique and specific. This explains why the technology is growing increasingly popular among recreational drone users.
2. Prototyping and Greater Ease in Upgrading Drone Parts
Unlike mass manufactured drone parts which are typically made of standardized specifications and efficiency levels, it is easier to make better and more efficient drone parts with additive manufacturing. This is because as compared to traditional manufacturing methods, design modification in small-scale 3D printing is much more economical. This means that designers and other drone enthusiasts can design, print and test drone parts with greater ease and at a lower cost hence lead to products that are tested and retested until the desired levels of quality are achieved.
3. The Ability to Create Complex Designs
Since the additive manufacturing process depends on a digital design file, it is easier for designers to create and produce complex designs of drone parts. Designers no longer have to conform to traditional rules of manufacturing.
4. There is Less Waste
Traditional manufacturing methods are often subtractive. This means that they start with a bulk of material which is then molded and cut into the desired design and shape. Sometimes, this process of cutting and machining the raw material leads typically to widespread wastage of content and in some cases may even lead to a 90% loss of material.
With 3D printing, however, this is no longer a problem since the technology only uses the amount of raw material necessary to print out an object. Most importantly, it is possible for designers to recycle and remodel many of the materials used in the 3D printing of drones.
5. Helps to Enhance the Performance of Drones
3D printed drone parts usually are made from the light material which means that the final products are significantly lighter than drone parts found in the commercial market. In addition to that, the fact that designers can optimize designs in such a manner as to allow them to carry the required weights also makes the final 3D printed drone parts light. According to drone experts, how heavy or light a drone is affected the drone’s flight time. A lighter drone will fly for longer, will have better battery life and also has higher responsiveness and agility during flight.
6. Increased Convenience for Drone Owners
Although the importance of drones in human society is growing, the sad truth is that these unmanned vehicles are prone to crashing and other forms of wear and tear, Ultimately, this means that drone owners continually and regularly have to search for drone spare parts. This is often strenuous, and sometimes drone owners experience difficulties in finding the spare parts leading to even more downtime. However, 3D printing allows drone owners to design and print spare parts on demand and at a lower cost too. This leads to a significant reduction in downtime.
The Challenges of the use of 3D Printing in Drone Manufacturing
Despite the benefits of additive manufacturing in the making of drones, it also has its limitations and challenges.
1. Limitations regarding Strength and Endurance
While 3D printing has brought speed and convenience in the manufacture of drone parts, the fact is that sometimes the resulting drone parts are weaker and less enduring than those that are traditionally manufactured. However, many experts note that since 3D printing is still developing and changing, this limitation may gradually diminish in the future.
2. Lack of Flexibility in Material Choices, Color Choices, and Finishes
There are an estimated 600 3D printing materials -both plastics and metals- available in the market today. Relatively speaking. However, this is a drop in the ocean particularly in comparison to material choices in traditional manufacturing. Additionally, there are still not many options for designers regarding colors and finishes. Luckily, however, this is also changing as more materials are added to the additive manufacturing palette.
3. Challenges in Large-Scale Applicability
While 3D printing technology is convenient and economical for small-scale production, it is not yet competitive enough for use in large-scale production of drone parts. Analysts expect this to change as the affordability of 3D printers and raw materials are enhanced.
3D Printable Drone and Quadcopter Parts
One of the best things about using 3D printing technology in the manufacture of drones is that it is possible to all the parts of a drone except the electronic components. This means that it is possible to make elements such as;
. Landing gear
. Camera mounts
. Antenna holders
. Protective equipment and accessories such as prop guards
. Remote casing
. Battery pack casings
. FrameLanding gear
. Component holders, spacers, and platforms
Things to Consider when 3D Printing Drone Parts
There are some things that one must consider when using 3D printing technology in the manufacture of drone parts.
A wide range of software is required in the process of 3D printing drone parts. Firstly, one would expect a 3D modeling software. There is much software in 3D modeling software on the market, and it is essential for drone enthusiasts to research on the pros and cons of the major software found. One may also need slicing software to facilitate the cross-sectional slicing of the design blueprint.
2. 3D Printer
Any drone enthusiast who wishes to design and make 3D printed parts right in the comfort of his or her own home must have a 3D printer. Just like the software, there are different models of 3D printers in the market, and it is advisable to research the various models and their capabilities before selecting one.
3. Raw Materials to Use
Choosing the right material for 3D printing is of absolute importance especially in the creation of drone parts. This is because different materials have different weights which in turn has an effect on the flight time and even the battery time of the drone. On the other hand, it is hard to navigate appropriately with a drone that is overly light.
Experts recommend some materials for use in the 3D printing of drone parts;
. PLA is one of the most natural materials to work with. This is mainly because of its affordability and the fact that it is readily available. Additionally, PLA has no odor. On the downside, the material is not resistant to heat resistant or UV resistant. Nonetheless, this is the most recommendable material for beginners in 3D printing.
. An alternative to PLA is ABS. This material is considered light and at the same time, secure and stable. It also has relatively better temperature resistance and is affordable and readily available. The most significant disadvantage of ABS is its toxic fumes. What’s more, one must use a heated print bed to obtain optimum results with this material.
. Nylon has also emerged as an excellent material with which to 3D print drone parts. This is primarily due to its strength and its temperature resistance. It is also light regarding weight. However, many experts note that it is ordinarily tricky to work with. This makes it an ideal option for 3D printing pros.
. One may also use PET/PETG for 3D printing drone parts. While this material is durable and shockproof, it requires a heated print bed and is even more expensive than the other alternatives. In addition to that, PET/PETG is relatively more substantial than other material.
4. Printing Services
It is still possible to create 3D printed drone parts even without owning a 3D printer. This is largely because commercial 3D printing services are increasingly available in the consumer market. Some of the service providers even do it at reduced prices and sometimes even for free. Some right places to look for 3D printing services are libraries and universities.
Popular 3D Printed Drones
3D printing technology has completely changed the design and creation of drones in the recreational drone community. The effects of 3D printing technology have particularly reverberated heavily among racing drone enthusiasts. Today, there are some popular 3D printed racing drones. These include;
1. The Firefly
This is, without doubt, one of the fastest 3D printed drones. It is a quadcopter and has earned a reputation for its excellent flight capabilities.
2. Hovership 3D Printed Racing Drone
The Hovership is not only one of the most popular Do-It-Yourself designs for 3D printed drones, but it is also one of the best when it comes to drone racing. Additionally, this 3D printed drone has good functionality, durability, and stability. The Hovership 3D design blueprint is available at various online locations.
3. Anisoptera Racer
One of the best things about the Anisoptera racer is that it was designed with simplicity in mind. This means it is relatively easy to 3D print. More importantly for the avid runner, this quadcopter is a proven speed master.
4. Arrow 270 Drone
Probably the first thing anyone will notice about this drone is the sleek design. Aside from beauty, however, this drone also offers speeds of up to 150 km/hr making it one of the fastest 3D printed drones in the market. To add on that, the drone also has an autopilot function and is easily customizable. Both beginners and advanced drone pilots will enjoy this 3D printed drone.