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NASA - Composite Creations
August 2, 2006

Structural Fabrication Branch Chief Ed Swan at the composite lab's new downdraft table. Ed Swan is thrilled to have a composites facility.

Though brand new and without some needed equipment, the facility at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center is up and running now.

Image right: Structural Fabrication Branch Chief Ed Swan, at the composite lab's new downdraft table, holds a composite piece from the aft fuselage of Dryden's Gulfstream III aircraft. NASA photo by Tony Landis.

"Our new lab is ready to go and it provides an environmentally sound composites capability for Dryden," Swan said. Swan, chief of Dryden's Structural Fabrication Branch, showed the first composite part made in the new lab, an antenna fairing for one of the center's F-15B research aircraft.

The new facility consists of two primary workspaces: a "prep room" and a separate "clean room." Sanding, grinding, cutting and other work is accomplished in the prep room, preparing parts for entry into the clean room where actual composite lay-up occurs.

A downdraft table is the centerpiece of the prep room. This large, slotted table contains a vacuum that draws particulates into a built-in filtration system. The downdraft table itself is contained in a sanding booth that is both explosively sealed, as fine particulates of flammable materials can be an explosion hazard, and filtered by a system of no less than 27 filters.

To say the facility is "green" is an understatement.

"This system puts nothing into the air that we can't capture," Swan says. "Also, our technicians' safety is greatly enhanced with this facility."

The clean room, though not technically clean for lack of a separate, sealed air filtration system, is the place where shop technicians perform composite lay-ups. This portion of the facility has to be as clean from debris as possible to prevent interference with the material bonding and curing process.

Co-located with the composites facility is a new office area containing a dedicated desktop workstation for computer numerical control, or CNC, programming for the fabrication branch's precision CNC machines. CNC equipment is used in industry primarily for repeatability in making hundreds or thousands of identical parts, but the branch uses them to exploit their ultra-precision.

"We usually make only one part, but it's perfect," Swan said.

Sprawling above the composites lab is a large new workspace. Though vacant now, this space reclaims the floor space lost to the new lab. It will house storage lockers and the shop's smaller, hand-operated mechanical shop equipment, freeing up the main shop floor-space for larger machinery.

Though currently working primarily with fiberglass, the shop plans to move into carbon fiber technology. Swan looks forward to acquiring more equipment as the composites facility becomes fully operational, and plans to continually upgrade the facility. Not far from the top of his wish list of upgrades is a composite oven, which will provide vacuum molding capability for resin curing of advanced carbon fiber composites.

"All our technicians have had composite training, and the new lab will help them keep current in this work," Swan said.

"Many new aircraft projects at Dryden involve composites. The future of aircraft construction is composites," he concluded.

Gray Creech
NASA Dryden Public Affairs

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