This article is part of AIN’s comprehensive coverage of the F-35. Click here for news, videos and images of the long-awaited Joint Strike Fighter.
It’s a stealthy, mass-produced warplane for 12 air arms in 10 countries, including Singapore. Can the F-35 Lightning II really fulfill its promise, at an affordable price? With crucial negotiations on production prices and quantities now under way, here’s how Lockheed Martin and partners are putting together the Joint Strike Fighter.
To date, only a portion of Lockheed Martin’s huge production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, is devoted to the F-35. The 21 system design and development (SDD) aircraft (including five nonflying test articles) are coming together on a traditional, “pulsed” line. Eventually, though, the entire floorspace will be devoted to the F-35, with one aircraft per working day rolling off a moving line that owes much in concept and design to the automotive industry.Factory managers from Lockheed Martin and the main F-35 production partners Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems have learned much from the car makers. Lean manufacturing, six-sigma and just-in-time are the buzz phrases for the program. Lockheed Martin claims a moving assembly line acts as a pacemaker and gives a 30-percent faster throughput while using 40 percent less inventory because parts are supplied to the ship-side exactly when needed, and not before. The same philosophies apply at the factory in Palmdale, California, where Northrop Grumman makes the center fuselages, and Samlesbury in the UK, where BAE makes the rear fuselages. Lockheed Martin makes the forward fuselages and the wings.“All three partners share best practice…the lean manufacturing effort is continuous and you never stop learning,” said Chris Garside, who is in charge of F-35 production for BAE Systems. That process includes whether to build in-house or to subcontract. BAE built all 272 parts for the first rear fuselage in the SDD contract, but has now outsourced two thirds of them to four suppliers in the UK. Northrop Grumman has outsourced parts of the center fuselage to companies in four of the F-35 partner countries.“The challenge is to ‘pull’–don’t make anything before it is required,” said Janis Pamiljans, F-35 program manager at Northrop Grumman. He described how the company has created process management teams to devolve scheduling to the lowest possible level.The organizational discipline helps reduce costs, but software technology is the key driver in F-35 production. Not only the aircraft, but all the tooling, for both detail parts and their assembly, has been digitally designed. The so-called “digital thread” provides a consistent point of reference for all measurements. Data can be re-used for high-precision machining.Ultimately, said Pamiljans, all drilling can be automated; a lot of it is already. At Fort Worth, the company has installed a huge Cincinnati CNC (computer numerically controlled) machine to drill the wing. The machine was built to accommodate the single-piece wing and skin Lockheed Martin originally conceived for the F-35. However, that design was changed to a three-piece wing with seven skins as a consequence of the structural weight-saving exercise mandated in 2004.Digitization extends to the shop floor, which is paperless. Assembly workers view their process instructions on a graphics workstation. They also benefit from ergonomic improvements. For example, the wing assembly tool at Fort Worth rotates upward as manufacturing proceeds to promote a comfortable working position.Lockheed Martin is measuring the advantages of all these improvements against its considerable previous experience building warplanes. Compared to the F-16, the company believes average detail parts delivery times will be reduced; for example, it expects a bracket should be delivered in five days rather than 28 and a complex machined part in 28 days, down from 58. Assemblies should fit together the first time with 30 percent less reworking and 20 percent shorter assembly spans. Compared with the first F-22, the first F-35 required about 30 percent less rework hours and 20 percent fewer final assembly hours.As things stand, Italy is the only F-35 partner country outside the U.S. that will have a final assembly line and Alenia is preparing to be a second source for wing manufacture. But the Italians will have to invest heavily. To date, Lockheed Martin has spent $500 million on tooling at Fort Worth for the wing, forward fuselage and final assembly, and BAE has invested $70 million to produce the rear fuselages. After a careful evaluation, the British government decided not to press for a final assembly line in the UK.Singapore currently is a “Level 3” partner in the F-35. Like Israel, it gets classified briefings and data on the aircraft, but no opportunity to participate in subcontract manufacturing. The “Level 2” partners are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey. They have all invested in the aircraft’s development and in the production tooling. The UK is the sole “Level 1” partner and is contributing $2 billion to the cost of the SDD phase.None of the partner countries has yet committed to buy production aircraft. Their procurement officials will no doubt be watching the manufacturing efforts closely in the hope that the aircraft’s production unit flyaway cost could be as low as $44.5 million–the price Pentagon budget planners used in 2006 for the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing version. However, the low-rate initial production aircraft for the U.S. Air Force cost much more than that.