F-35 factory: One aircraft per day by 2016

By Grace V. Jean

FORT WORTH, Texas — Inside a manufacturing facility so large that workers routinely bike and ride golf carts down paths named after fighter jets, preparations are underway to begin mass production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Lockheed Martin Corp. plans to assemble the stealth plane here on a moving assembly line using digital processes and automation techniques that are new to the defense aerospace sector, says Steve O’Bryan of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 business development team.

Though car manufacturers have built millions of vehicles on automated assembly lines, the concept of moving lines has not been applied to military aircraft since World War II.

Modern warplanes typically have been built in small quantities over the course of many years. The Navy’s F/A-18, which has been in production for more than 20 years, is being built at a rate of 42 aircraft per year. But the F-35 Lightning II is expected to be built at an unprecedented rate — as many as 230 fighters per year.

Lockheed has embraced the moving assembly line concept as the linchpin to produce the next-generation fighter in large enough quantities to satisfy U.S. and international sales.
The U.S. military is buying about 2,500 aircraft. Allied nations are purchasing an additional 500 or so. Lockheed Martin officials are expecting foreign military sales to hike the total number to more than 4,000 Joint Strike Fighters.

“You’re really looking at F-16-like numbers,” says O’Bryan.

Once the line ramps up to full-rate production — possibly as early as 2016 — the company estimates it will assemble about 21 fighters per month, or roughly one aircraft per working day.
The moving assembly line is the only way to reach that rate of production, O’Bryan says. The F-35 measures 51 feet in length. “If the plane doesn’t move 51 feet a day … you’re not going to produce one a day.”

There are three variants of the F-35: A conventional take-off and landing aircraft for the Air Force, a short take-off and vertical landing version for the Marine Corps and a carrier-based variant for the Navy.

Lockheed has completed the critical design reviews and last month the first flight of its short take-off and vertical landing variant for the Marine Corps took place.
The initial operating capability for that version is expected in 2012, followed by the conventional takeoff and landing version in 2015, and the carrier version a year after that.
Last December, the first F-35 variant, AA-1, was air-refueled. It will fly from Fort Worth to Edwards Air Force Base in California for preliminary testing.

Along with Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and BAE Systems are involved in the manufacturing of the F-35. The $299 billion procurement program is the Defense Department’s largest.

Four years ago, the company had to redesign the structure for all three variants because the short take-off and vertical landing aircraft was overweight. The mission systems are 98 percent common across the three variants, says O’Bryan. “We’ve seen more commonality between the vehicle systems than what we predicted,” and that will only help in production, he says.

A good portion of the mile-long factory, which once built bombers, is still dedicated to manufacturing the F-16 Fighting Falcon. But by 2016, nearly the entire building will be producing the F-35.

“Things here are picking up quite a bit,” says O’Bryan. There are 19 prototype aircraft in production, and the first low-rate initial production aircraft also are in various stages of construction at the plant.

Lockheed has about 600 workers on the floor doing assembly work. That number will grow to more than 700 by the end of the year. The workforce will reach 3,500 at the peak of full-rate production, when three shifts will build the plane around the clock.

The company expects to produce more than 130 aircraft during the low-rate phase. In preparation for the expected uptick in production during the next few years, the company has invested more than $500 million in improvements to the factory floor. “Everything is always under construction here, and we continue to expand,” says O’Bryan.

The same equipment and production lines that have been assembling the stealth aircraft during its development phase will be used in the full-rate production. Typically, a separate line is built for production aircraft, but Lockheed Martin wanted to put both test and production fighters on the same line to increase efficiency and keep costs down.

Another unusual but cost-saving measure was to implement workstations that would accommodate all three variants of the aircraft interchangeably, says Gus Villanueva, deputy director of F-35 global production.

Unlike in previous fighter programs that required dedicated stations for each model, reconfigurable tools will allow the stations to handle any variant of the F-35. “That’s one of the big cost-savings to the program, because you don’t have to invest in all the tooling to support many different variants,” says Villanueva.

That concept will allow all aircraft components to come together on a single final assembly line in the center of the facility.

Bright yellow platforms will surround each plane as it moves along at a continuous pace, guided by a dolly. Big blue towers along the wall will swivel arms out above each aircraft to provide cooling, electrical and hydraulic power so that engineers can test systems as the rest of the fighter is being assembled.

For full rate production, officials expect to have at least 12 moving platform stations up and running. All three variants of the F-35 will be built on that moving assembly line, in any order.

That means a conventional take-off and landing jet for the Air Force might be followed in line by a partner nation’s conventional F-35, which could be followed by the carrier variant for the Navy, followed by the Marine Corps short take-off and vertical landing aircraft.

Not only is Lockheed Martin adopting the moving assembly line concept from car manufacturers but it is also using electronic 3-D models of the aircraft in almost every aspect of the production — from the tools and the machining to the components themselves. Engineers refer to this data as the “digital thread,” which allows the data to be shared by all subcontractors and suppliers. Doing so has improved the delivery time of different commodities by as much as 40 percent in some cases, says Villanueva.

“We’re working on a lot of different manufacturing technologies that are going to help us expedite the assembly process,” he adds.

In the past, workers would build the airplane and the external skins before “stuffing” it with the internal mission systems. “On JSF, we’re stuffing it before we enclose the structure,” says Villanueva. That reduces the risk of damaging attachments or substructures, such as doors or panels, if the interior systems require some sort of adjustment.

This new way of constructing aircraft also means that more automation can be incorporated into the production line. Lockheed is responsible for building the forward fuselage as well as the wings — the largest and most complex component of the fighter. Using auto-drive vehicles, workers are constructing the wings, which are held upright and surrounded by stands that move up and down. “We’ve never built a wing vertically,” says O’Bryan.

The ability to use auto drilling for the forward fuselage and wing structure keeps workers from having to spend several days manually drilling holes. Wings often have hundreds of holes; each JSF wing requires drilling more than 3,000.

“Now you get to do that in one pass,” says Villanueva.

Another innovation suggested by one of the company’s engineers automates the process of installing fasteners. A laser device is used by workers to match the correct fastener to the corresponding hole without first having to transfer that information manually from their design instructions

“It’s a big improvement,” says Villanueva, whose first job in aerospace was as a mechanic on a factory floor. “We didn’t have anything like that. We had a six-inch scale and a number-two pencil. We had to lay everything out. I remember using different colored markers for different types of fasteners.”

Villanueva later worked on Lockheed’s F-117 Nighthawk program for 24 years. Earlier this year, the final four F-117 stealth aircraft retired from service. Their retirement also marks the end of the company’s legacy of analog manufacturing processes, which have shifted to digital.

Workers today sign in at computer workstations that assign them daily tasks. Tools required for each job — the drill bits, the cutters — are already packaged in kits that workers simply pull from nearby vending machines.

“Because they have to swipe their badge and tie back to the system they’re using, we can do a better job in managing the inventory we need to support the build of that airplane,” says Villanueva. That means the company can track all the tools and replenish supplies with greater efficiency. Not having copious amounts of supplies stored in the factory translates into cost savings, officials point out.

To keep the line running steadily, Lockheed has been working to convince partner nations to increase their advance orders for the aircraft. That would reduce the price of the fighters for all potential buyers.

The United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway all have pledged funds to help develop the aircraft. Singapore is said to be considering joining the program. Israel has proposed a five-year defense plan that includes purchasing 25 JSF in 2012.

“Nobody wants to buy the aircraft that are close to the beginning [off the production run] because they’re expensive,” says O’Bryan, drawing a timeline chart that extends from present day to well into the 2020s.

“That’s our great challenge — to stop people from going to the right” and waiting to buy the aircraft until after the company has hit full-rate production. He adds that the company is developing a flat-rate price that would cover all the aircraft.

The price tag of the F-35 remains a point of contention. The credibility of various cost estimates has been questioned by various government audits. Lockheed Martin says that the unit cost of the F-35A conventional fighter is less than $50 million, in 2002 dollars, when the contract was initially awarded. By the same accounting, the F-35B and F-35C are about $60 million per copy.

In an audit last year, however, the Government Accountability Office estimated that the F-35 could cost as much as $97.6 million apiece, in 2008 dollars. Norway recently asked the U.S. government to provide information on a potential buy of 48 F-35s for delivery in 2016. Lockheed estimated that, in 2008 dollars, each aircraft would cost $56.5 million, with an additional $2.2 million for auxiliary mission equipment, such as pylons, rails and the helmet-mounted display systems.

If the partner nations place early orders, those price tags could be reduced, depending on the timing and the numbers of aircraft, Lockheed officials say.

In preparation for a production ramp-up, Lockheed plant managers are working with suppliers to set up what could be a highly complex supply chain, with different parts and components arriving from various places around the world. Northrop Grumman is building the center fuselage at its plant in Palmdale, Calif. while BAE Systems is building the aft fuselage in Samlesbury, England. Those fuselages will arrive here at the factory with most of the systems installed.

Officials say that’s one of the challenges — ensuring all the pieces are arriving where and when they’re supposed to be to support aircraft production.

“I think we’ve pretty much figured what we’ve got to do here, how to tie all those countries into that manufacturing process,” says Villanueva.

If the production line is maxed out in Fort Worth, the company has plans to build a final assembly and checkout facility in Italy to help keep up with orders. Workers there will produce the fighters at a lower rate, but they will use the same tools found in the U.S. plant.

One controversial issue that has not yet been resolved is the engine of the F-35. The Defense Department selected the F-135 engine manufactured by Pratt and Whitney. The F-136 engine made by General Electric and Rolls Royce was chosen as the back-up engine. But Pentagon officials later decided to kill the GE engine to cut costs. Several members of Congress disagreed, and are pushing to keep the second engine.

Lockheed officials say they are neutral on the issue but stress that they don’t want any decision on the engines to add expenses or delay schedules in the F-35 program. “We can’t absorb that kind of cost,” says O’Bryan.

While Lockheed presses forward with preparations for full-rate production of the F-35, the program still faces political hurdles, including accusations by Pentagon auditors that the company is not properly managing the project. A November 2007 report by the Defense Contract Management Agency — which was first obtained by the Project on Government Oversight — found that Lockheed Martin’s military aircraft division was not compliant with contractually-required industry guidelines for tracking and managing costs called the “Earned Value Management System.” EVMS helps contractors and the government spot potential cost problems before they balloon out of control.

DCMA looked at how Lockheed was managing the F-35, F-22 Raptor and F-16 programs. The agency said Lockheed was non-compliant in 19 of 32 industry guidelines.

For example, the company used its “management reserve to alter internal and subcontract performance levels and overruns,” said DCMA. Management reserves are meant to be used to address unexpected issues, not to alter subcontractor cost overruns. The report said that the improper use of the management reserve ultimately led to a reduction in test planes and test flights in the JSF program.

The decline of Pentagon and contractor emphasis on EVMS was “an unintended consequence of 1990s acquisition reform,” James I. Finley, deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, told POGO.

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month, Pentagon acquisition chief John Young said the DCMA report prompted an extensive review of Lockheed’s fighter-aircraft programs. He said the company agreed to a 12-step plan to address the issues that were raised by DCMA. “We will withhold $10 million for every milestone that Lockheed misses,” Young told the committee.

In response to questions from senators about the JSF, Young said the Pentagon faces some tough decisions. If the Defense Department chooses to slow down the program to conduct additional tests of the existing prototype aircraft, it could add time and costs. If possible, the Pentagon wants to transition to low-rate production and begin full production as currently scheduled, with the knowledge that there are always risks involved, Young said.

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Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Manufacturing

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