Lockheed Martin (Chalet 316) is taking steps to improve its manufacturing processes for the F-35 Lightning II. The company contends that more efficient manufacturing methods will help it drive down the flyaway cost of the fifth-generation fighter by $10 million by 2019, and by more if the U.S. government invests.
Last July, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), Lockheed Martin and its industry partners Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems announced the “blueprint for affordability” accord to reduce the unit recurring flyaway cost of the F-35 to a price that compares with current fourth-generation fighters. The agreement required the contractors to invest $170 million over two years on new materials and processes, with Lockheed Martin spending the majority of that amount. If they succeed in significantly reducing the fighter’s unit cost, the U.S. government has the option of investing another $300 million over three years, which it would recoup by paying less for the F-35.
Not ‘Chump Change’
Earlier this year, Lorraine Martin, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program executive vice president and general manager, reported on the company’s progress toward meeting the blueprint’s goals. Initially, the manufacturer expected that it would see the first cost savings during F-35 low-rate initial production (LRIP) lot 9, which Lockheed Martin and the DOD were negotiating at the time of Martin’s presentation in mid-February. But it realized early benefits while producing LRIP 8 airframes, cutting about $260,000 from the cost of each of 43 fighters that it will begin delivering in 2016. “So that’s not chump change,” Martin declared. “I rolled that cost savings into the offer I made to the government when I negotiated the contract,” which the parties signed last November. The contract did not include the cost of the fighter’s F135 turbofan, which the DOD and engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney negotiated separately.
At the time of the LRIP 8 contract award, Lockheed Martin said the average unit price of airframes for the three F-35 variants was 3.6 percent lower than the LRIP 7 price. The company reports that the LRIP 8 cost of an F-35A for the U.S. Air Force without its F135-PW-100 engine was $94.7 million. The price of an F-35A with its engine was $108 million, which was $4 million lower than Lot 7 prices, according to the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO).
Martin said the manufacturing improvements her company is implementing could knock another $780,000 from the price of LRIP 9 jets. Ultimately, the blueprint’s goal is to deliver an F-35 with an engine for $80 million in then-year dollars, accounting for inflation. Martin has generated news by saying the price could be even less. “If this works, and we have confidence that it will, [the government is] potentially willing to invest on the tail end $300 million. With these two sets of investments, that’s what gets us down to under an $80 million aircraft,” she said.
Since launching the blueprint effort, Lockheed Martin and F-35 partner companies as of late April had formally submitted 156 candidate projects to the JPO, of which 68 had been approved to change manufacturing processes. The 68 approved projects required the three companies to invest $59 million. Another $56 million in projects was being considered.
Martin outlined several manufacturing process changes and resulting cost savings. Previously, Lockheed Martin applied stealth coatings to the diverterless supersonic inlet “bump” in the F-35’s engine intakes as a separate process in its paint shop; going forward it will perform “mold-in-place” coatings using a robotic arm to inject the coatings through a precise mold around the jet. The new approach allows work to continue on other parts of the aircraft. It required an investment of $742,000 and saves $6,000 per jet, or potentially $27 million over the life of the program, says the manufacturer.
Materials applied to the F-35’s wingtip leading edges and horizontal tail trailing edges are placed in a vacuum bag and cured in autoclaves. A new “closed-volume composite molding” process uses matched metal tools for each surface part, reducing the labor and time required to treat the different pieces. The new approach required an investment of $493,000 and saves $10,000 per jet.
Lockheed Martin will employ cryogenic machining in its manufacturing process, using compressed liquid nitrogen to cool drill bits in place of oil-based chemicals. The new approach, which involves an investment of $119,000, rids chemical residue and extends tool life and production speed, saving an expected $4,000 per jet.
A relatively low-tech change will save $65,000 per shipset on the F-35 conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant, Martin said. The manufacturer now uses “right sized” aluminum forgings for the CTOL bulkhead. In the past, it acquired 13,000-pound aluminum sections and forged them in a steel die; now, it uses 8,300-pound pieces that more closely approximate the size of the actual bulkhead. “This is a maturity improvement, but we had to change the engineering drawings. We had to get it approved, and it bought its way onto blueprint,” Martin said.
Lockheed Martin was also collaborating with engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney and F-35B lift fan supplier Rolls-Royce to drive down engine costs, Martin said. Separately, Pratt & Whitney reports that it has waged a “war on cost” to reduce the price of the F135 turbofan since 2009. From the time it built the sixth flight-test engine to those it is producing today, the engine manufacturer claims to have reduced the cost of the F135 by 55 percent.
As of March 31, Pratt & Whitney had delivered 217 F135 engines to Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth and the Cameri Final Assembly and Check-Out facility west of Milan, Italy, that is assembling F-35s for that country and the Netherlands. It was negotiating with the JPO for its own blueprint for affordability that will start after the 300th engine, said Mark Buongiorno, Pratt & Whitney F135 program vice president. “In raw terms, the blueprint for affordability is incentivizing us to continue to make investments in cost reduction with a defined mechanism to recoup that investment,” he explained.
Will It Work?
Despite early progress and optimistic assumptions, the jury remained out on the ultimate success of F-35 cost-cutting exercises. In an April report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said Lockheed Martin had improved efficiency, reduced major engineering design changes and lowered the number of hours required to build each jet. But the congressional watchdog agency also noted that both Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney were experiencing late deliveries and quality defects from their suppliers, which could challenge planned F-35 production increases. With the DOD planning to ramp up spending over the next five years, it recommended that the Pentagon conduct an “affordability analysis” of that plan.
“While the F-35 program office and contractors have initiatives underway to improve affordability, those initiatives have a specific focus on reducing procurement and sustainment costs but do not assess the affordability of the program’s overall procurement plan within budget constraints,” the GAO said. “The initiatives are still ongoing and the total cost savings related to these initiatives is yet to be determined.”
Program Under Scrutiny
The F135 engine program of the F-35 Lightning II has come under sharp criticism from two U.S. government entities over quality control and reliability issues. Engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney and the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) challenged some of the findings and defended the program.
A “Quality Assurance Inspection” the Department of Defense Inspector General released on April 27 identified 61 “nonconformities,” or violations, of quality management regulations and requirements. It recommended that the JPO coordinate with the Defense Contract Management Agency to implement corrective actions for those violations, and called for tighter program management overall. The JPO did not ensure that Pratt & Whitney “proactively identified, elevated, tracked and managed” F135 program risks; did not ensure that its supplier selection and management of underperforming suppliers were sufficient; and did not ensure that its software quality management practices were adequate, the IG found.
In a statement, the JPO acknowledged that the IG’s report is “factually accurate.” But it disagreed with three of six findings relating to the need for additional F135 program management oversight, risk management practices and software quality management practices. “In these three cases, the JPO believes the DOD IG findings and recommendations for corrective action are unnecessary, and, if implemented, would add cost and schedule growth to the program for items that are already well understood and carefully managed,” the JPO said.
Pratt & Whitney said that it has worked aggressively to implement corrective actions since the IG’s audit, which was conducted over two weeks in November at the manufacturer’s Hartford and Middletown, Conn., facilities. As of earlier this month, it had implemented 60 percent of identified corrective actions, with the balance scheduled for completion by July.
“This was an audit of P&W’s quality system and F135 contractual adherence, not an audit of F135 product quality,” the manufacturer stated. “None of these findings had any impact on the product performance. None of the findings has, or would have, affected the operational fleet, safety or mission capability of the aircraft or the F135 engine.”
On April 14, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on F-35 “affordability challenges” that described F135 engine reliability as “very poor” and dragging against the fighter’s overall reliability progress. Data Pratt & Whitney provided the agency indicated that the mean flight hours between failure of the engine used in the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant was at 21 percent of where it was expected to be at this point in the program; the engine for F-35B short takeoff and landing (STOVL) variant was at 52 percent.
“While overall reliability has increased, engine reliability over the last year has remained well below expected levels. Improving the F-35 engine reliability to achieve established goals will likely require more time and resources than originally planned,” the GAO stated.
Pratt & Whitney contested the GAO’s conclusions relating to reliability. “The report incorrectly assessed engine reliability, as it did not account for new designs that have been validated and are being incorporated into production and fleet engines,” the manufacturer said. The F135 CTOL engine exceeds its specification at 147 percent of requirements; the STOVL engine meets 119 percent of current requirements, it said.