3D Printed Parts Help Launch a New Era of Recreational Aviation

ICON Aircraft is betting on a future where private recreational planes are as popular as powerboats and motorcycles. Its ICON A5 is a giant step toward that goal: A plane that “will handle like a sports car with the top down,” according to the Discovery Channel. To speed this recreational aviation beauty onto the runway for a major air show, they came to Stratasys Direct Manufacturing. We not only saved ICON time and money, our approach enabled complex features that other manufacturing methods could not.

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ICON Aircraft recently took flight with the unveiling of its ICON A5, a small, recreational plane that its founder, Kirk Hawkins, hopes will revolutionize a market already enamored with powerboats and motorbikes. He calls the two-seat ICON A5 “the ultimate recreational vehicle,” able to reach speeds up to 120 miles per hour.

Speed was important when it came to creating some of the aircraft’s parts, too. The unveiling of the plane at the Experimental Aircraft Association Air Venture in Oshkosh, Wis., drove the decision to use Stratasys Direct Manufacturing’s rapid prototyping services to create the plane’s eight air ducting parts, according to Matthew Gionta, Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Engineering, ICON Aircraft.

“Using Stratasys Direct Manufacturing eliminated the tooling process for us,” Gionta said. “We put the parts in place on the airplane and then laminated structural composites over them. They became a tool for the structural part. Otherwise, we would have machined the molds and then laminated composite parts into them.” Gionta estimated that ICON Aircraft gained two to three weeks on the schedule, as well as saved $2,000 and two person-days per part for tooling. “That’s a pretty significant amount,” he added.

Creating parts for a special aircraft required some special considerations. “Minimum part thickness was a big driver for us. We wanted to keep the weight as light as possible,” said Gionta. Stratasys Direct Manufacturing representatives recommended a 0.06 inch thickness to maximize handling and still keep the weight down. Some of the parts were seven feet long.

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Gionta chose ABS material, which can withstand the projected heat deflection above 180 degrees Fahrenheit. He also used Stratasys Direct Manufacturing’s Ready Part process to provide a smooth finish. “Some parts are on the outer surface of the plane and visible,” he said. “It saved us some extra body work time.”

Parts created at Stratasys Direct Manufacturing included two 3D air intake units underneath the wings to bring in outside air to cool the engine. Because he was familiar with rapid prototyping, Gionta designed the parts to be more intricate. “I took advantage of the process and included intricate turning vanes inside the ducts that we couldn’t have manufactured by hand,” he said. “I put in extra features that we would not have been able to accommodate without very complex tooling. The result made for a higher performing duct.”

From start to finish, Gionta was impressed with the Stratasys Direct Manufacturing service. “I liked the process of uploading the file and receiving a quote back automatically,” he said. “When I had additional questions, I worked with a Stratasys Direct Manufacturing rep to optimize the design of the part to be more cost-efficient.” Gionta was even impressed with the way the parts arrived. “I was impressed with the packaging when the parts came to us,” he added. “The expediency of the service was fantastic.”

Although initially driven by a tight schedule, ICON Aircraft saved time, money and labor by using Stratasys Direct Manufacturing. Gionta’s advice to others? “Take the leap of faith,” he said. “Once you have, you’re going to get hooked.”

Sounds a lot like flying!

The ICON A5, which the Discovery Channel said “will handle like a sports car with the top down,” is available for sale at www.iconaircraft.com.

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