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Aerospace Industry Rethinking How to Build Military Aircraft
By Sandra I. Erwin

PALMDALE, Calif. — “Exploratory teams” of government officials periodically are seen in this part of southern California, checking the pulse of the aerospace industry at a time when the Pentagon is under growing pressure to innovate and can no longer afford to do business as usual.

The changing defense market is putting the squeeze on companies that design and build cutting-edge aircraft. The focus is now on rapid prototyping and other techniques that let buyers experiment with new systems before they commit to major investments.

“I’ve been hearing about a paradigm shift,” says Kevin Mickey, vice president of advanced design at Northrop Grumman.

There appears to be a “real push” by customers like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Navy and Air Force to find more efficient ways to develop new aircraft as they try to figure out their requirements, Mickey tells National Defense during a media tour of Northrop’s aviation manufacturing facilities in northern Los Angeles County.

Mickey is an aerospace veteran who until recently was president of Scaled Composites, a Northrop subsidiary in Mojave, California, that specializes in experimental aircraft and prototyping.

“I hear DARPA talking about X planes, the Navy talking about rapid capabilities,” he says. The technology exists to design and produce revolutionary aircraft in shorter timelines than has been possible in the past, but the question is whether the Pentagon is poised to exploit these advances.

The military aircraft business increasingly is leaning toward “rapid prototyping,” Mickey says. As the military decides what it needs to fight future enemies, it does not want to commit to traditional programs that do not allow flexibility to modify systems as security threats change. Prototypes are adaptable so buyers can test before they make up their minds, he says. “You want to demonstrate aerodynamics at full scale. You don’t need all the capabilities [in order] to explore the aerodynamic envelope.”

Northrop Grumman in 2007 acquired Scaled Composites with the goal of infusing fresh thinking into its military aircraft and space business. Under Northrop’s ownership, Scaled — founded by Burt Rutan in 1982 — still operates as a separate company.

Technology is important, but “culture and attitude can be a great discriminator,” Mickey says.

Scaled Composites president Ben Diachun says the company is working on 15 different aircraft programs, a mix of military and civilian models. Some of those designs are intended to help Northrop Grumman win future Pentagon competitions as a prime contractor, rather than as a supplier of major components.

“On average we do one new aircraft type to first flight per year,” Diachun tells reporters.

The secret sauce that enables the company to take a clean sheet design to flight within a year are engineers who wear multiple hats, he says. “They do conceptual designs, detailed designs and carry the hardware through the manufacturing and tests; and 70 percent of our engineers are pilots.”

Some of the aircraft concepts that Northrop is positioning for future Pentagon deals bear the Scaled imprint, including a new trainer for the U.S. Air Force, an unmanned spy plane for the Navy and a sixth-generation fighter that would fly without a pilot in the cockpit.

“DoD doesn’t need to go to Silicon Valley. We have these things right here,” says Tom Vice, president of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

Vice has been a staunch advocate of corporate investments in manufacturing technologies. In the early days of his career, Vice worked on the B-2 stealth bomber, one of the military’s most advanced but also most expensive airplanes. The company set up an assembly line in a one million square-feet facility to build 132 bombers, but the order was truncated to 21. The poor economies of scale inflated the price of the aircraft to about $2 billion each.

During a tour of the empty factory floor in Palmdale, known at Building 401, Vice hints at the possibilities for the space.

“We don’t talk about what we’re going to do or how we’re going to build any future products,” he says. There is little doubt, however, that the company is hoping to bring that factory back to life by manufacturing a new long-range strike bomber for the Air Force, a contract Northrop won in October but is being protested by rivals Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

To avoid a repeat of the cost escalation that doomed the B-2, Northrop is betting big on high-tech manufacturing and digital design. Aircraft should be affordable regardless of the size of the production run, Vice says during a meeting with reporters. “You’re building 70 Triton [unmanned aircraft] for the U.S. Navy, 21 B-2s, up to 2,000 F/A-18 fighters. The F-35 run is likely to be 3,000,” he says. “We have to have an ability to build 70 of something as efficiently and as cost-effectively as we would build 2,000 of something.”

Modern manufacturing methods tend to help lower costs, but making programs affordable also requires a “consistency in how things are funded,” Vice says. “If we say we’re going to build 100 of something, let’s build 100” at the rate that was planned.

While working on the B-2 bomber, Vice recalls, the company studied General Motors’ production process for introducing its new Saturn line and estimated that if only 20 cars had been built, each would have cost $350 million.

“We do that sometimes to ourselves in this industry,” he says. “And it’s likely to happen in the future. So we have to think differently. How are we going to bring economies of advanced manufacturing and know-how so we can build fewer things, or many things, and still do it efficiently?”

In today’s defense market there is little tolerance for miscalculations, he adds. “There’s a lot at stake in the next 30 to 40 years. There’s an intensity around these competitions.”

A key player in Northrop’s push for lower-cost production is KUKA Robotics, a global supplier of industrial robots. The company made the equipment used at the Northrop’s “integrated assembly line” that produces major components of the F-35 airframe. This line was the product of many years of planning, Vice tells National Defense during a tour of the plant.

The next wave, what he calls the “factory of the future,” has been in the works for six years and will become a selling point as Northrop takes aim at future military contracts like the Air Force T-X trainer and the sixth-generation fighter. The idea is to create an “integrated digital enterprise” where the data, models and information about a system flow across the entire life cycle. “You can take something that’s brand new from a 3D model and actually forecast how it would go through a factory like this, how you would build it.”

The company is making another big wager on next-generation robotics technology that would turn military systems into independent thinking machines. “We’ve migrated from the idea of unmanned to autonomous,” Vice says.

Today’s unmanned systems are not as revolutionary as they could be, he says. Current drone models “constrain our ability to think about innovative new designs. If we think about never having a pilot, it allows us to design things that human beings would never allow,” such as airplanes that push beyond 9 g’s, that take off and land vertically, and do things that pilots would not want to do. “Airplanes still have not gotten to the point where the machines themselves are actually thinking. That’s where we move to the next iteration of advanced autonomy. … So you must provide the system the ability to make that judgment within the context of American values. That is really, really hard.”

PHOTO: Integrated assembly line (Northrop Grumman)


Re: Aerospace Industry Rethinking How to Build Military Aircraft

Very interesting concepts presented here.  These could and should be used for aircraft, automobiles, trucks and any other big ticket items.  I daresay, the cutting edge TVs now hitting the market at 4 or 5 thousand dollars could benefit from this methodology.
Richard Prokopchuk at 1/18/2016 10:37 AM

Re: Aerospace Industry Rethinking How to Build Military Aircraft

Most interesting - wonder how much of rapid prototyping is digital/virtual simulation of: system concepts/missions effectiveness/life-cycle costing, as well as fabricating and testing air vehicle prototypes ?
Al LeBlanc at 1/19/2016 12:47 PM

Re: Aerospace Industry Rethinking How to Build Military Aircraft

You'd think the F-35 was the new of F-4/F-16 the way contractors sell it. When it's really the new Starfighter. There will never be 3000 of them. More likely under a thousand. With a third going to American air branches.
The underperforming JSF program is in danger of being cut severely. Best to to let the cuts happen and buy Advanced Super Hornets or Rafales. Supported by Textron Scorpion's and UCLASS drones.
If not the Pentagon is in for a rude awaking when planes are lost in the next major air battle over the Pacific .
Valvatorez at 1/20/2016 2:21 AM

Re: Aerospace Industry Rethinking How to Build Military Aircraft

I think 3D printing is the way to go.  If you have factories that can 3D print shapes of metals, composites, plastics etc... you create aircrafts with less parts which accounts to less failure.  You can create shapes of aircrafts that would endure the stress better than todays aircrafts. Most aircrafts are pieces that are welded. You could essentially create aircraft designs that are unimaginable and out of this world and they would actually fly.  You also shorten the time for parts.  The infancy stage is of course having each part printed and putting it together.  The more advanced stage is have the whole aircraft printed with all its internals externals and engine. This is certain to happen.  Herzog Zwei is the way to go where you have factories 3D printing Missiles, aircrafts, helicopters, Tanks, drones, the list goes on.
oli at 1/22/2016 1:37 AM

Re: Aerospace Industry Rethinking How to Build Military Aircraft

Totally agreed with Oli. 3D printing technology is the answer for every query regarding aircraft manufacturing.It would not only be helpful in designing large number of aircrafts in very short span (of course,initial printing stage would take some time) but also would considerably reduce their prices in future.I have read an article from -a big manufacturer of 3D metal printing engine and engine parts for aerospace industry-that the future of aircraft manufacturing is 3D metal printing technology.
Janice J. McKinney at 5/5/2016 4:10 AM

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