- 3D printing is used at scale to manufacture drones and UAVs
- Defense contractors, commercial companies and people at home are making 3D printed drones.
3D Printing lets you make short run parts in geometries that other technologies can not. Parts can be made quickly and with lower overall costs. Rather than wait weeks for tooling and have a considerable up front investment per part, parts can be made with low up front costs as well. Less stock, not only in parts themselves but also in tooling, cores and assembly materials need to be kept. Parts can also be made in such a way that they integrate a lot of functionality in them. A fuel tank can be made so it integrates into it a cap, mounting brackets and a nozzle. This reduces the total assembly time, reduces weight and reduces the total number of parts. This again has a positive effect on the overall costs of the craft and its performance. The lower the weight the faster, higher, cheaper and longer drones can fly. 3D printing was initially used as a prototyping technology for military drones and then many manufacturers ended up flying their prototype parts. Military, commercial and hobby drones are one of the largest applications of 3D printing in series production.
3D printed hobby drones
In hobby drones we can see that 3D printing is lowering the barriers to entry to the drone market. People worldwide are now designing and developing their own drones. Buying off the shelf components they develop their own RC and drone aircrafts from home. We can see an increasing number of these people now look towards adding functionality to these drones. Whereas only a few years ago most would be content to have something that flew now more performance is the target. People wish to add cameras to their drones or turn them into flying camera platforms for DSLR cameras. People are looking if they can use these drones to survey buildings, survey land, take aerial selfies and lift things. We also see true innovation occurring in this market. People at home are now working together to share and repurpose files to make better craft. We also see 3D printed drones being made with new concepts or ideas at their core. Long term gliders that are meant to stay aloft for hours or micro drones that fit in the palm of your hand. Such craft are also being developed by commercial companies and defense contractors. They market them at significantly higher cost however. If you make a novel drone and print it out on your Fused Deposition Modeling machine, then that design can be shared and printed out by others. In this way 3D printing accelerates innovation and spreads ideas and files around the world. For most the development of these craft is also a hobby so their R&D efforts are rewarded only by the fun of having made a thing. This further keeps down the cost of these desktop 3D printed drones. In combination this indicates that some very low cost high performance craft could eventually emerge from the desktop drone market. This could have implications for companies making commercial drones.
3D printed commercial drones
In commercial drones 3D printing is used widely for prototyping. Additionally it is used for customizing drone platforms. DJI and others have base drone kits that they sell through which you can customize the body of the drone with 3D printing. They are in effect trying to become a hardware platform that offers people the building blocks that they need to build custom drones. This will let them stay ahead of the curve and keep a close eye on new developments. Rather than top down having to spot every emerging trend they can sit back and give drone builders and enthusiasts kits and see which of them are successful.
In higher end drones such as professional camera platforms and crop dusters we see 3D printing being used for gimbals, brackets, custom holders for cameras and the like. Small specialized drone builders use the technology to cost effectively offer a wider array of models than they could also. Purchasers of drones such as camera companies or film companies use 3D printing to customize them further. Parts are designed and printed so extra battery packs can be added for a particular camera for example. There is a small but emerging ‘aftermarket’ as well where certain drones have customers for niche aftermarket goods. Some companies are emerging which are engaged in what we would in other industries call “systems integration” where they take a tool and then repurpose or finish it for newer applications. For drones this means that they are taking a standard drone and making it fit for a fire service for example to meet their individual requirements. For these companies 3D printing is also an effective technology.