India’s nascent drone industry is turning to 3D printing firms to ramp up production in the absence of adequate infrastructure to tap into the emerging drone-as-a-service opportunities for sectors such as healthcare, agriculture and delivery.
While 3D printing technology is being used to build parts of a drone, the industries are also exploring ways to contribute to each other’s growth.
Experts said use of 3D printing for manufacturing drones is not new, but was so far limited. However, with advancements in technology, it now offers better quality and durable products, which is changing the ecosystem, they added.
“The demand for hybrid 3D printing machines has grown significantly in India’s drone industry. The requirement for polyurethane, which is a rubber-like material used in making landing gear, has gone up. Carbon fibre-based material is being increasingly used in small drones,” Swapnil Sansare, chief executive, Divide by Zero, a 3D printing firm, and vice president, Indian Additive Manufacturing Forum, said.
“Companies are innovating to meet new expectations and demands. 3D printing service providers are now better positioned to understand what is required, and deliver,” Vipul Singh, co-founder, and chief executive of Aarav Unmanned Systems (AUS), a drone service provider, said.
For instance, 3D printing is being increasingly used for both prototyping and to build parts used in an end product, unlike most sectors where the technology is primarily used for prototyping. Besides, with 3D printing, one can customize drones according to a use case—the frame, landing gear, propeller, camera mount and antenna holder, or protective equipment like prop guards are all standard products that can be 3D printed to make the drones light and customizable.
In addition, specialized use cases such as smart-farming may need equipment such as a sprayer, tank, or pump, which can also be 3D printed.
Certain shapes and parts are difficult to produce at a large scale using conventional manufacturing, Singh said. “Now that the possibility to develop alloys through 3D printing has increased, it allows more flexibility with the design,” he said.
Homegrown Imaginarium, which offers 3D printed components to drone companies, plans to inaugurate a metal printing facility in August. It will use powdered metals to print layers of objects to offer sturdier products. “It allows the same design freedom, but you can print in aluminium and titanium, both lightweight metals with a high strength to weight ratio,” Priyesh Mehta, director, Imaginarium, said. Besides , it has other advantages over conventional manufacturing, said Mehta. “Conventional manufacturing hinges on the size of the order, and most manufacturers don’t entertain small orders, but drone makers do not have large volume needs right now.”
Mehta said barring a few companies, most drone firms are at a pre-concept stage and designs are changing so fast that it doesn’t make sense to go for mass production. “They are using 3D printing as a bridge as there is no minimum order quantity for 3D printing.”
Imaginarium has applied for the ₹120 crore production linked incentive scheme for drone manufacturing. India also imposed a ban on imported drones in February. While most parts are still imported, the government’s move prompted local firms to turn towards 3D printing firms. Mehta said the industry can reverse engineer parts using 3D scanning, and creating computer-aided design (CAD) models, which can be used to manufacture on demand.
In fact, the ability to design and build on demand is a key factor that has helped form the synergy between drone and 3D printing industries. “Being a small startup in a budding industry, you don’t have regular demand, you build to order. Your batches will be smaller, say, 50 to 100 drones. Smaller companies even produce 5-10 drones,” said Singh.
However, some experts said this is a temporary phase and once demand increases, companies will turn to traditional and more cost-effective manufacturing models.
Mughilan Thiru Ramasamy, co-founder and chief executive of Skylark Drones, estimated that 15-20% of drone components are 3D printed in India currently.“The moment things in the drone industry become more standardized, drone companies will switch to injection moulding (a manufacturing process where parts are produced by injecting molten materials into a mould) as that will be a cheaper option,” he added.
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