An interview with Matt Chasen — CEO of LIFT Aircraft
“We’re very fast and very careful.
Which is very hard.”
The team at eVTOL start-up LIFT Aircraft talks about its radical mission: to democratize flight
LIFT Aircraft Inc. is a US-based eVTOL business with a global team and a simple mission: to make the experience of piloting accessible to anybody. The team around CEO Matt Chasen has been using cutting-edge technology from batteries to materials, from generative design to additive manufacturing, to go from a blank piece of paper to manned flight in less than 13 months. We talk to Matt, Chief Engineer Balazs Kerulo, and Charles Justiz, a former NASA Test Pilot, about the role 3D printing has played in their journey so far and how they keep finding the right balance between fast and safe.
Balazs, you got your head round 3D printing very quickly and then really went for it. Tell us about your learning curve.
Balazs Kerulo: Prior to LIFT, I used to design conventional fixed wing aircraft below specific weight limits, which was very challenging. Back then, we didn’t have 3D printing available, so I was forever blaming the manufacturing technologies for constraining us as designers too much and not letting me do what I wanted to do.
That meant I was kind of primed in favor of any new technology that would get rid of some of those constraints. So the first thing I did when 3D printing came along was to get myself a home 3D printer to play with — with my son, who was maybe four at the time. Now he’s ten and can 3D print his own stuff already.
By the time we all got together with Matt to talk about this crazy plan to get to a flight-ready aircraft in just over a year, the first thing I started thinking about was how we can use new enabling technologies, new manufacturing technologies to evolve designs really fast. We got the Materialise team involved really early on for that reason. At the same time, I started looking at software that could do generative design — to come up with lots of design options within certain constraints that we’d then refine further. Generative design pairs very well with 3D printing, because — like 3DP — it doesn’t really care about the old constraints of traditional manufacturing processes either.
You’re particularly proud of the design of a particular part, the pylon. Why is the part important and what has 3DP allowed you to do with it?
Balazs: We’ve got a distributed powertrain. That means we have 18 motors and 18 batteries. Which is great for safety, but also means that everything, any part to do with the powertrain has to be multiplied by 18. Every gram is multiplied by 18. So we have to be very efficient with the design of those parts in particular.
The pylon is probably the most important of them all. It connects the motor to the aircraft. All the forces run through it. It was a challenge to design it to withstand all the forces, the torque, the dynamic forces, etc. It was one of the first parts we started working on and that we used generative design for. We chose titanium for that part and then used a material-defined, generative design process to develop it.
Generative design was really handy here, because we only had to tell it the constraints — the forces, the torque and fatigue characteristics we were aiming for. The computer came up with a really good solution straightaway that we liked and that worked. And that structure could really only be made using 3D printing.
Because the manufacturing technology is so new, we use very high factors of safety. The safety factor we applied to this part is around 10. The part is very light and it could be slimmed down even further, but we want to stick with that high safety factor for now. We’re doing fatigue testing with that part at the moment and, if the results are good, we could go lower. But then, the parts are so light already that maybe we should just leave them as they are, knowing that we could reduce them down further if we ever wanted to.
How important was it to have a partner like Materialise on this, how much of their help did you use?
Balazs: We came up with the part and sent it to the Materialise team and they came back and said ‘that’s fine, that’s printable’, but they also made suggestions like ‘use a diamond shape here to make it quicker and more environmentally friendly and cheaper to print’, etc. And that’s really how we’ve been working with the team ever since. We send our parts and the feedback that comes back is very constructive and has really helped us refine designs.
Having gone through that exercise of getting from an idea to a market-ready product so quickly and having used AM quite heavily to get there, what advice would you give people looking to pull off something similar?
Balazs: My advice would be not to be afraid of it. Even using higher factors of safety, find that parts are lighter and more efficient than anything you could make conventionally.
Matt Chasen, CEO and Founder, LIFT Aircraft
Matt Chasen is a serial entrepreneur, investor, and adventure sports enthusiast. Matt is founder and CEO of LIFT Aircraft, which is launching the world’s first experiential entertainment business based on an entirely new type of personal, electric aircraft. He has earned Austin Under 40 and Texas “Rising Star” honors (2011), and was an EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist (2010). Prior to business school, Matt was an engineer at Boeing in Seattle, where he worked on the F-22 Fighter, Airborne Laser, and other advanced aerospace projects. Prior to Boeing, Matt studied mechanical and aerospace engineering at U.T. and was a NASA scholarship recipient. Matt is a pilot, an avid sailor and scuba diver, and has completed the Texas Water Safari - known as the “World’s Toughest Canoe Race.” Matt lives in Austin with his wife and two children.