Physicist Wants to 3D Print the Cockpit of a World War II Warbird

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Inside the cockpit of the Junkers Ju 388 L

Munich, Germany is home to the Deutsches Museum, the world’s largest museum of science and technology. It was a visit to this museum that instilled in young Christoph Vernaleken a lifelong fascination with aircraft, particularly historic ones. Decades later, the German physicist and doctor of engineering is working for Airbus Defence and Space on the design and upgrade of cockpits, but it’s a side project that really holds his passion right now. Dr. Vernaleken plans to reproduce the cockpit of a rare World War II plane – using 3D printing.

The Junkers Ju 388 L was a German high altitude reconnaissance plane that appeared near the end of the war, and only one of the planes still survives today. Currently housed at the Smithsonian’s Paul E. Garber Facility, the aircraft is still largely intact, and its cockpit remains almost entirely in its original state – unlike most other historical German aircraft, according to Dr. Vernaleken, who first saw the Ju 388 in 1993, when he visited the facility and was able to enter and photograph the historic cockpit. His interest in the plane led to further research, a co-authored book, and now, a plan to conduct a “feasibility study” that he hopes will result in a complete reproduction of the Ju 388’s cockpit.

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Dr. Christoph Vernaleken [Image: i.materialise]

“The feasibility study that I am conducting at the moment is two-fold in its objectives,” Dr. Vernaleken explains in an interview with i.materialise. “First of all, I want to find out whether it is possible in principle to create museum-quality spare parts for historic cockpit instruments and other equipment using 3D printing and other individualized manufacturing techniques/services. The answer is not as simple as it may seem at first glance, since not all of the historic materials are available for 3D printing. The second objective of this feasibility phase is to see whether there is a cost-efficient way of making reproductions for the warbird home cockpit/simulator market.”

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Dr. Vernaleken’s first 3D printed replica part.

Dr. Vernaleken began experimenting with 3D printing in 2013. His first attempt involved the reproduction of a Bakelite bezel from a cockpit switch panel; the successful reproduction can be found in his i.materialise shop along with several other 3D printed reproductions of old aircraft parts that he has been collecting over time. He models his 3D reproductions using Punch! ViaCAD Pro9 software, then converts them to STL format and uploads them to i.materialise. While the antique parts he is reproducing could technically be reproduced using other methods, he says, 3D printing is the only realistic one in terms of cost and time.

340284s“…From an economic perspective, unit costs would be astronomically high if molds for casting metal or plastic injection molding would have to be manufactured in the classic fashion,” he says. “3D Printing is the only economically feasible way of creating reproductions of cockpit parts which were originally cast in metal or created from historic plastic materials such as Bakelite in small numbers.”

Several challenges are involved in an undertaking like this one, but Dr. Vernaleken has the determination and comprehensive knowledge to make it work. In a restoration project where “a few tenths of a mm of error may render the spare part unusable,” he’s already shown an aptitude for absolute precision; now the challenge is making it work on a large scale. You can follow his research and progress on his Ju 388 website. What do you think of this project? Let’s discuss in the 3D Printed Cockpit forum over at 3DPB.com.

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