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A fighter on the line

The F-35 is to be built as no other U.S. warplane has been since World War II -- riding through an assembly plant -- in a bid to cut costs and speed production.

January 14, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Not since the days of Rosie the Riveter have the nation's military aircraft been built on an assembly line.

For almost as long as anyone can remember, fighters and bombers have been built like houses: one by one, each taking weeks, if not months, to come together.

But if all goes well, the newest jet in the nation's arsenal will be assembled more like a car: on a moving line in a process that the Pentagon hopes will dramatically cut costs and speed production.

"We're going to build one a day, which the industry hasn't seen in a while," said Randy Secor, deputy program manager for the F-35 Lightning II at Northrop Grumman Corp., which is to assemble the fuselage in Palmdale.

"We're going to revolutionize the way aviation is done," Tom Burbage, F-35 program manager for primary contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., said after the first test flight last month in Fort Worth.

The assembly line revives an approach last in vogue during World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the production of 50,000 military aircraft a year.

That required a massive buildup of the civilian workforce and a break with the traditional way of making planes. One aircraft plant operated by Ford Motor Co. used assembly line methods perfected by company founder Henry Ford to churn out bombers at the rate of one an hour.

Assembly line production was feasible back then because aircraft were far less complicated. It was decades before designers could even dream of such features as the F-35's ability to evade radar, get airborne using only 200 yards of runway, fly at supersonic speed and, as in one version, be able to take off and land like a helicopter.

But as planes grew in complexity and production was scaled back from the frenetic wartime pace, the aircraft conveyor belt went the way of the Ford Edsel.

Half a century later, knowing that more than 5,000 F-35 jets could be ordered, Northrop of Century City and Lockheed of Bethesda, Md., are looking at the past to build for the future.

The F-35 would be the only fighter to enter production in the next decade, and could even be the last piloted warplane aircraft bought by a U.S. military that is shifting to robotic planes and other means of delivering weapons to their targets.

The three basic variants of the F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, are intended to replace Air Force F-16s, Navy F/A-18s and Marine Corps AV-8Bs.

In the next two decades, the Pentagon plans to spend $276 billion to buy 2,500 F-35s. Several key U.S. allies, which are paying about 10% of the development program's cost, already have proposed buying 700 F-35s. Foreign governments could eventually buy more than 3,000 planes.

Faced with such demand, Northrop has turned a cavernous plant in Palmdale into a state-of-the-art assembly line, with a high-tech rail system serving as the aviation version of a conveyor belt.

Replacing the overhead cranes used in traditional aircraft factories to haul parts to a workstation will be a jig that resembles a scaffold. It will move on rails to workstations where robotic tools will attach parts and install wiring.

The fuselage will travel to the workers doing the assembly, not the other way around. In another first, the line will be capable of producing one complete fuselage for any of the three F-35 versions without interruption or reconfiguration of the process.

"We brought in the auto industry to help us," Secor said. "It's going to boost the quality of work, keep us on schedule and reduce costs."

Other aerospace contractors have experimented with assembly lines in recent years.

Hoping to cut costs and increase efficiency, Boeing Co. in 2001 began testing a moving line at its 717 jetliner plant in Long Beach. But with few orders, the aircraft program was canceled. Boeing recently started using a moving line for part of the assembly of its 777 passenger jet.

One obstacle to the wider use of assembly lines has been the expense of retrofitting factories, particularly when they are still churning out airplanes. Northrop had no such problem, however, because it had a plant that had been idled since the last B-2 stealth bomber rolled out of it in 2000.

Northrop anticipates that it will be able to assemble one complete F-35 fuselage a day in Palmdale. By comparison, a Northrop plant in El Segundo assembles one F/A-18 fighter jet fuselage every nine days on average.

The assembled center fuselage will be shipped to Lockheed's Fort Worth plant to be mated with other sections of the aircraft. The Texas plant also will have a moving assembly line.

Northrop and Lockheed plan to phase in the lines over the next few years as they make test versions of the jet.

Despite employing newer technologies and costlier materials, the F-35 promises to be cheaper than the F/A-18, which it will replace. The Navy version is expected to cost about $55 million, or $5 million less than a comparable new F/A-18.

Not everyone is sold on the assembly line idea.

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