Based in southeastern Connecticut, ScaleBirds is a team of aviation enthusiasts specializing in creating replica, retro, and radial-powered aircraft with the ultimate goal of offering affordable kit planes to enthusiasts. The company’s concept started in 2011 when a senior project spiraled into something much bigger. Since then, father and son duo, Sam and Scott Watrous, have put together a dedicated team to build scale replica planes as they were intended to be, powerful and fun.
Since 2016, the team has been working on creating a 60% scale replica of a Curtis P36 hawk. Over the past several months, the team has been putting the final touches on the plane ahead of the augural flight, which took place on July 1st, 2022. To meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements for night flying, the team at ScaleBirds had to secure lighting elements to the top and bottom of each wing and the front and back of the stabilizer.
TriMech Advanced Manufacturing Services, a premier service bureau serving the Eastern US, worked with ScaleBirds to design and 3D print a light housing and mounting flange for the aircraft using LOCTITE 3D Printing material.
The Challenge: Housing Units for Aviation
ScaleBirds specializes in creating replica aircraft dating back to the 1940s. To maintain authenticity, the team makes every effort to preserve the look of the original aircraft. This can be a challenging task, as majority of parts needed for this type of application are legacy parts, making them difficult to source. As the volumes required by the ScaleBirds team are relatively small, so using more traditional manufacturing methods would be out of scope due to cost and lead time. To put the finishing touches on the P36 aircraft, the ScaleBirds team needed to develop two custom components to affix lighting to the aircraft’s wings, a housing unit and a mounting flange. The housing unit needed superior clarity and transparency to allow adequate lighting. In the past, the Scalebirds team had tried to use a vacuum-formed polycarbonate but found they required thicker walls to mitigate dents and scratches as well as better UV stability to avoid frequent replacement.
ScaleBirds also faced challenges utilizing vacuum-formed polycarbonate as they were seeing significant wrinkling on the finished product, which would be unacceptable for flight. The second component, a mounting flange, needed to be extremely tough. This part will be affixed to the aircraft using riveting, so the part needs to withstand this process without cracking due to stress. Additionally, this part will be exposed to several environmental factors, including significant vibration, while affixed to the aircraft’s wings.
The Solution: 3D Printing End-Use Parts
Earlier in the build, ScaleBirds leveraged LOCTITE 3D Printing materials in the past to create a joystick handle for the same aircraft, so they were aware of the end-use capabilities of LOCTITE material. This time around, the team leveraged the expertise of TriMech to determine the best material to use for each component of the lighting.
“These light fixtures almost didn’t happen. We did not have a lot of time left to experiment and nothing off the shelf was the right fit. When Dan told us they also had a way to directly print the lenses with all of the detail and properties we needed, I was interested. After fitting an example, I knew we had a solution. Ultimately, we got finished parts that work awesome, and with time to spare. Everyone loves these details that add form and function. And are amazed to learn the lenses were printed.”
-Scott Watrous, Designer at ScaleBirds
To create the housing unit, LOCTITE IND405 Clear came highly recommended by TriMech, as it was incredibly tough and could offer varying levels of transparency to meet application needs. After vetting the material, it was clear that the new solution would be more durable than the previous solution of vacuumed-formed polycarbonate and offered more customization. Using LOCTITE material, it was possible to utilize advanced finishing on the housing unit.
In this case, the team at ScaleBirds successfully painted a portion of the housing on the interior to prevent glare. They also painted the flange piece of the housing to match the aircraft’s exterior for an authentic look. For the mounting flange, DURA56 was selected due to the high elongation ductility, allowing the part to deform slightly with conditions without any breaks or cracks appearing. DURA56 also offered a high impact strength, so the mounting flange would survive being riveted to the aircraft without any damage.
After five years of designing, creating, and testing the P36 aircraft, securing the lighting components was one of the final steps ahead of the inaugural flight on July 1st, 2022. While 3D printing was just one of many technologies used for the overall plane construction, it offered several critical benefits throughout the process.
“Using 3D printing was great for form tools, jigs, and checking fits, but it only got us so far. But using these new materials in functional parts I think helped us cross the finish line when it was critical. Now that we’re starting on the next version, I am finding new opportunities left and right to print parts directly for the aircraft, knowing they can do a hard job and look the part, without a lot of labor or cost on our end. It makes my work as a designer and fabricator such a joy when things just work.”
-Scott Watrous, Designer at ScaleBirds
Leveraging an additive manufacturing workflow significantly reduced lead times and overall costs for the Scalebirds team. Instead of spending upwards of $10,000 USD and waiting several weeks for injection molded parts, ScaleBirds could 3D print both components for less than $250 USD. Not only was a 3D printing solution cheaper, but it was also a more robust solution to create authentic digital replicas.
It is also worth noting that Design for Additive Manufacturing, or DfAM, was essential to the innovation process for the team at ScaleBirds.
They were able to iterate more efficiently and optimize their newly designed parts to use the least amount of material possible for reduced weight, a critical consideration for aerospace applications.
We love supporting projects such as this. Small-scale manufacturing needs to take advantage of a variety of processes these days. Additive Manufacturing can help create a great product while offsetting a lot of financial risks on the business side.”
-Daniel Straka, General Manager of Advanced Manufacturing Services, TriMech
LOCTITE 3D Printing delivers unique photopolymers with production capability, customize resins and deliver engineering services to identify the best application to address your needs. With a constantly growing portfolio of high-performance materials, specialized equipment and post-processing solutions, LOCTITE overcomes the limitations of conventional 3D printing to enable additive manufacturing to produce durable, functional parts. Through its strategic partnership with technology leaders for specialized equipment, LOCTITE is driving the adoption of 3D printing beyond prototyping and toward the production of final parts. (www.LoctiteAM.com)
Founded in 1998 and headquartered in Richmond, VA., TriMech provides computer-aided design and engineering software, additive and subtractive manufacturing solutions, and associated training, consulting, and staffing services for a variety of industries. Its tools support 3D modeling, simulation, virtual replication, collaboration, and information intelligence applications. The company has 50 locations across the central and eastern U.S. and Canada and serves more than 15,000 active clients. (https://trimech.com)
Based in Groton, CT., ScaleBirds has a mission to bring new and unique aviation products to the market. With a focus on replica, retro, and radial aircraft, the small team has experience in art, engineering, design, ship building, robotics, and manufacturing, and of course aviation. When their skills are combined with their passion for flying, they can deliver something new to the world of flying that still feels authentic to the era. ScaleBirds is now taking pre-orders and beta-builder applications. (http://scalebirds.com)