When you were little, did you ever fly remote control airplanes? I know I did. To some, it’s a reminder of a much simpler time, but for The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics club here at CSU, it’s become much more complicated, and much more competitive, than that.
“Our plane has a wing span of 5 feet, and it’s about 4.5 pounds and 3.5 feet in length,” said Jared Ham, an engineering student here at CSU. “The fuselage is being printed, and the wings are cut from foam. It stores hockey pucks because that’s what the challenge was this year.”
Ham is referring to the plane that his team is assembling, with the help of his fellow engineers and the Idea2Product lab. They are building a plane from scratch, completely designed and made by a team of engineering students with the help of a retired professor.
“It’s a competition held by AIAA, the aerospace club. The challenge is to fly as many hockey pucks as possible, at least three, and there is also categories like fastest speed to compete, of course,” Ham explains. “It’s got a motor that mounts in, and the steering is controlled by the wings. We competed last year, where we had to build two planes, and the bigger plane had to carry the smaller plane.”
There are many ways they could have gone about building a plane, but there are three key features that they were looking at: weight, cost, and time efficiency. Because of that, they decided to give 3D printing a try.
“We had thought about a lot of different ways to do it, but 3D printing seemed to be the lightest way to do it, not to mention we are all students, so we didn’t have a lot of time to sit here and build it,” Ham explained. “If we do end up crashing it, it’s a lot easier to rebuild. It was a time-saving thing, and we were all really interested in the idea of 3D printing, since we had never really done it before, so this got us into it.”
However, even with their decision and plans all drawn out and uploaded, it took some practice to make the print perfect.
“We probably went through 10-15 total prints,” Ham recalled. “Most of it was a weight saving thing. The first prints we did came out way too heavy, so we printed them in separate pieces. The first time we printed the nose, we printed it solid, with infill, but it was way too heavy, so we went back into the 3D modeling and shelled it out so it’s just air and walls being printed. That saved us almost half a pound per piece. We used PLA material and all the same print settings for both pieces, including a 0.5mm wall thickness. We dropped from the 1.0mm wall thickness to 0.5mm, which saved us a quarter pound per piece on the middle section. Our first prototype that we printed was probably 2.5 pounds, and now it’s going to weigh 0.75 of a pound.”
With a success on their hands, Ham stressed the ease and enjoyment that came out of the process.
“It was interesting to get started with 3D printing,” Ham recalled. “You have to go to the training to get into the lab, and that’s really helpful. The best thing to do is to go in and start printing. The first couple prints took me a long time just to set up the prints, but after that, you get used to it and you set it up really quick, you get to understand the settings as well. “
Still, despite their success, Ham admits that it was something that you have to work out at first. Things do not always go right the first time, and a lot of the process must be self-motivated.
“You can’t really sit there and watch people to understand it, but if you start doing it, it’s a quick learning curve,” Ham stressed. “It’s okay to mess up the first time. But 3D printing, it’s pretty straight forward. This piece was more complex because we had to deal with the support structure to get it both strong enough and light enough. We got it to the point that I can actually stand on top of this and it won’t break, which was a little overkill, but we know it’s strong enough, so we aren’t going to mess with it at this point.”
For those of you that would be interested in building your own plane and had not heard of the competition, do not fret. The competition runs every year.
“The project as a whole is a really cool project,” said Ham. “We start in the beginning of September, when the competition gets released through the AIAA club here on campus. We have about 10-15 people that work on it total. It’s a fun project, but time-consuming. There is always some kind of goal to the competition. This year, not only does it have to fly with hockey pucks, but it has to fit inside a tube so that it can be carried easily, and when it comes out of the tube, all the components have to move into position without using tools, so the two holes we made on the top will have pins that will drop into place when the wings rotate around. It’s a student-run organization, and for the project, we have a retired professor that helps us with the design. You have to be a student to be in the club, but it can be any major.”
If airplanes are not your thing, but you want to get started on your own, personal 3D products, Jared has some advice for you.
“For people who want to start printing, there are lots of people who have already designed things for you to print, and that might be the best way to get into it if you’re just getting into it, because you don’t have to deal with modeling it before you start printing,” Ham advised. “You can just go to the website and download the models and import it and start printing, and that’s the easiest way to get started. The people in the lab are a good help too, if you ask them questions they will guide you in the right direction and help you out.”