As the drone market hots up, drone makers must innovate to survive. 3D printing gifts engineers an in-house manufacturing tool to innovate rapidly and on budget to transform their development cycles.
Additive manufacturing is a perfect manufacturing match for drone making because it enables rapid prototyping to speed up time to market and the production of custom tooling to cut out suppliers and reduce development costs.
Additionally, 3D printing’s breadth of technologies – primarily FFF and SLA – offer exciting opportunities to test engineering materials like PEEK, PEKK, composites like Kevlar, and the Formlabs resins that mimic performance plastics.
This article explores the benefits of 3D printing in drone making, including business, design, and engineering benefits you need to know.
Let’s jump in!
The ability to explore and realise concepts within hours gives 3D printing a unique advantage over traditional prototyping processes.
Rapid prototyping involves sending CAD drawings to a 3D printer and getting parts on the same day, if not within a few hours. This enables assemblies to be built quickly with minimal setup time and no waiting for suppliers.
Additionally, rather than spending time setting up CNC machines and testing model iterations in the real-world, 3D modelling software can test objects with AI, revealing mechanical weaknesses before production.
Rapid prototyping is suitable for concepts, functional prototypes, and final iterations for end-use parts, ensuring maximum value across the drone product development cycle.
Software stress testing
Stress testing is perhaps the most critical of all drone-making stages because it assures parts’ strength, longevity, and reliability.
The traditional way of testing parts in the real world is expensive, time-consuming, and utterly unnecessary with additive manufacturing.
Plenty of CAD/3D modelling programs (e.g., Fusion 360) provide a stress testing environment to simulate real-world conditions in software. The simulation can also identify problems that may not appear with static load testing.
By incorporating virtual stress tests into the development cycle, you can save time and money and improve the performance and designs of drone parts.
One of the most significant drone development costs is tooling (the tools used to design, develop, and manufacture drone components).
The traditional solution is to find off-the-shelf tools that do the job (generic or specialised) or commission custom tools from fabricators.
The problem with both options is cost and time – it costs lots of money to buy tools, and time to source, buy and maintain them.
3D printing offers a simpler solution: make tooling in-house. You can use a 3D scanner to capture an existing tool’s form and feed that information to CAD software, letting you build tooling in-house for significantly less money.
Alternatively, you can skip the 3D scanner and design tooling from scratch in CAD software or download files from 3D printing file sites.
Save weight and materials
3D printing is the best manufacturing technology to reduce weight and slash material used in solid drone components.
One way to save weight is by specifying a lighter but stronger material, such as polycarbonate, instead of ABS. Another way to save weight and materials is to take solid material away by reducing the quantity of plastic in the component.
You can reduce plastic in your drone while increasing strength and rigidity, or flexibility, by changing the infill pattern of solid components.
Infill is the structure of the material inside a 3D-printed part. Just as the underside of a bridge has interconnecting steelwork, 3D-printed parts have an infill that manipulates the part’s physical properties, including strength, structure, and weight.
Low development costs
3D printing lowers drone development costs by automating aspects of CAD including testing, reducing material use, and producing parts fast.
3D printing lowers drone product development costs in several ways:
- Minimal technology training
- Low prototyping costs
- Rapid reiteration
- Faster product development cycles
- Less material wastage
- Cut out tooling suppliers
- Automated production lines
- Cheap low-volume production (cost per part)
Together, these benefits equal significantly lower development costs, especially as you scale up production across multiple drone models.
The most exciting thing about additive manufacturing for drone making is the sheer diversity of materials available at your disposal.
You can print high-performance thermoplastics like PEEK, PEKK, and PC-CF, standard thermoplastics like PET-G, PC, and ABS, flexible materials like TPU, and composites including fibreglass and Kevlar with the Markforged X7.
For complex shapes and geometries where an FFF 3D printer’s mechanical print head restricts design potential, you can try an SLA 3D printer, which prints resin with a UV laser to cure individual layers of resin on the print bed.
Speed up time to market
Creating a fantastic drone takes time, but there is no reason to let traditional production processes like testing/validation hold you back.
Verifying concepts, validating designs and testing functions is significantly faster with 3D printing than CNC machining or injection moulding.
You can speed up time to market with rapid prototyping, and rapid reiteration, by simulating stress tests to improve performance, testing materials against each other, and validating designs from software to physical part on the same day.
It is not unreasonable to expect 3D printing to accelerate your entire product development cycle. Switching from a physical product development cycle to a digital workflow with fewer steps is bound to speed up your time to market.
The drone market is flourishing with faster, more capable drones, with additive manufacturing and 3D modelling software providing a complete in-house manufacturing suite for engineering teams to innovate.
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