Things To Do With A 3D Printer: Help Reconstruct a WWI Plane


There’s not many things technology can’t help us do these days.

We can communicate live across continents in a matter of seconds. We’re able to carry around computers with Internet access in our pockets. Not to mention that anyone can order a pizza in under five minutes, without even having to speak to anyone beforehand.

Looks like the future has arrived, folks.

But aside from all of these obvious perks, there are more and more tools becoming available to us that are helping to reconfigure what was once thought to be lost from the past. Digital technology can seemingly recreate and redesign almost anything we want to rebuild.

And Huw Thomas, an associate professor of industrial design at the University of Kansas, didn’t take this opportunity for granted. He decided to mix his passions and create something amazingly unique – a 3D replica of an engine needed to reconstruct an essential piece of a WWI plane. Yeah, sounds crazy, right? Again, apparently anything is possible if the right people and the right technology come together.

When volunteers at the Topeka Combat Air Museum were in need of some spare parts to recreate an authentic replica of a WWI aircraft, the idea seemed nearly impossible, even laughable at best. Sure, perhaps someone could do their best with some lightweight plastic pieces and some super glue, but it in no way would it appear like an original piece of a once-majestic fighter plane.

In earlier years, Gene Howerter, one of the volunteers in question, would simply throw together pieces of rope, metal, wood, spray paint – and yes, Elmer’s glue – to replicate any of the plane’s missing engine parts that would otherwise go unfinished. The museum needed to acquire something suitable for the masses, that wouldn’t make visitors groan at the lackluster attempt to recreate the original plane.

Howerter had certainly done his best for many years. He had constructed some engine replicas that seemed so life-like, he’d overheard murmurs about how authentic it looked. The plane he worked on had been hung from the rafters of the museum, and he felt pride in hearing positive remarks regarding its realistic appearance.

topeka combat air museum
Topeka Combat Air Museum (Wikipedia)

But about a year ago, the museum had collected a replica that was only 80% completed. The aircraft, a De Havilland 2 WWI fighter plane, had a rear-mounted engine missing. So naturally, the museum looked to Howerter’s fine craftsmanship for help in recreating it. Though Howerter would otherwise be interested, his age had begun creeping up on him. At 75-years-old, he felt the project would be too strenuous to complete by himself.

But before the project could be shut down, in walked Thomas, ready to come to the rescue for the museum. And he had some more modern technology under his belt to help him rebuild along the way, as well.

The Wales native decided that instead of trying to reconstruct the engine for the De Havilland with assorted, repurposed parts, he would try out an entirely new method that the museum had never seen: using 3-D printers. With three printers in total hard at work, he figured he would complete the Gnome rotary engine to near-perfect accuracy for the vintage plane.

And so Thomas set out to do just that. Re-creating dozens of both large and small parts, the finished product would be a work of art in itself, formed by layer upon layer of fine materials and arranged by technology’s best new toy.

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