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


The 3-D printers were able to fashion together spare parts out of material with a likeness to Lego pieces, that would then be bonded by an adhesive similar to super glue. The finished replica rotary engine measured out to about three feet across and 14 inches wide, and thankfully only weighed a little more than a few pounds. Once it was ready to position, the engine was adorned with a resin propeller and was finally attached to the back of the de Havilland 2 aircraft. The plane was finally completed, looking like a 100% authentic WWI aircraft.

Now in its proper form, the plane was suspended from the rafters with the other replica planes in the museum’s main hangar at the Topeka Regional Airport, where visitors can catch a glimpse of what would appear to be authentic, original machinery.

Thomas, for all of his hard work and brilliant imagination, actually completed the project free of charge, though the museum agreed to pay for all of the required materials he needed at his disposal. The two 3-D machines he used for the project were LulzBot TAZ 5 printers that were available at KU. However, once Thomas realized the extent of the time and effort the printing would require, he actually purchased one for himself and worked from home to finish the replica engine.

LulzBot TAZ 5 3-D printer
LulzBot TAZ 5 3-D printer

Thomas stated that it took about 400 hours of printing time to get all of the pieces he needed for the engine, as each of the nine cylinders was made as two halves, coming in at around 14 hours of printing per cylinder. He claimed it took 60 hours to simply design the computer model, a fact that makes Thomas’s decision to not receive payment for his trouble meant all the work was  even more noble.

Locating an old copy of the engine’s 1915 service manual also proved difficult, but Thomas managed to find one to help design the newest replica with the same 80% scale of the rest of the plane. He has now also signed on to make a 3-D replica of the Lewis machine gun, to attach on the front of the De Havilland where it would’ve been used by the pilot in the air, fired from the cockpit.

Starting the project in November 2015, Thomas managed to have the replica rotary engine completed by mid-April 2016. He made it just in time to be displayed for visitors coming from all over America to view the detailed design work and craftsmanship of the authentic WWI fighter planes, as well as its newly-acquired spare parts.

Suspended from the rafters in all its glory, it seems unlikely that any of the museum’s inquisitive viewers will be able to separate the original De Havilland 2 parts from its digital counterparts – a factor that’s both a nod to 3-D technology’s outstanding results  and Thomas’s own creative vision.