AIAA Reports: NASA’s Larkworks makerspace brings 3D printing into aeronautics research at Langley

Last July NASA’s Langley Research Center introduced Larkworks, a makerspace where scientists and engineers share ideas for advancing their research through technologies like 3D printing, laser cutting and computer numerical control milling. I had a chance to visit Larkworks through the recent NASA Social program that was held on Feb. 10 and see for myself some of the work that Langley scientists and engineers have been doing. There were 3D-printed drones and propellers, and robotics projects like a Haddington Dynamics arm. Probably the most eye-catching engineering project I saw was a fully 3D-printed aircraft nacelle, demonstrated by Brandon Litherland.

The 3D-printed nacelle won’t be used on a real plane, but it is a model of a component that will fly on a real NASA research aircraft. NASA’s X-57 Maxwell technology demonstrator will have 12 of these small nacelles for its distributed electric propulsion system along the wing, as well as two larger nacelles. The X-57 is a modified Tecnam P2006T airplane that will enable NASA scientists and researchers to study the flight performance of a fully electric aircraft.

The model nacelle was printed using several types of 3D printers. The bulkiest pieces were produced on a large-format printer, the re3D Gigabot XLT. Larkworks has numerous Prusa brand printers arranged in rows, and the Prusa M3S machines were used to print the majority of the parts for the nacelle. The black blades and internal gears are printed on a Markforged machine with Onyx filament, a special blend of carbon fiber and nylon.

Litherland explained, “The X-57 is significantly different from a traditional aircraft. For example, the cruise-efficient wing is much smaller than you would normally find on an aircraft this size. The aircraft is also fully electric, drawing power from battery packs, meaning that there are zero in-flight carbon emissions.”

One goal of the X-57 program is to help NASA develop certification standards for electric aircraft. This contrasts with programs like Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator project, which fits more efficient hardware on an existing aircraft with a conventional propulsion system. “We want to demonstrate how a fully electric aircraft with a novel propulsion and high-lift system can be operated safely within the bounds of its flight envelope. The behavior of these types of aircraft can differ greatly from a traditional single- or twin-engine vehicle including the handling characteristics, emergency procedures and performance.”

Hannah Godofsky is AIAA’s social media specialist. @h_thoreson

Related Topics

Aircraft Propulsion


AIAA Reports: NASA’s Larkworks makerspace brings 3D printing into aeronautics research at Langley