Setting the standards
Global defence, aerospace and security firm BAE Systems is teamed with Northrop Grumman and programme lead Lockheed Martin to deliver the F-35 Lightning II, the world’s largest defence programme
Responsible for the design, manufacture and assembly of the aft fuselage and empennage for each fifth generation F-35 Lightning II, aka Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), BAE Systems will be setting new standards for assembly precision and pace throughout the programme. This is thanks to digital design and precision manufacturing techniques that have been pioneered by the innovative company. Furthermore, BAE Systems is also responsible for the design and delivery of core areas of the vehicle and mission systems; these include the fuel system, crew escape, manufacture details and life support system as well as UK aircraft carrier integration and Prognostics Health Management (PHM) integration. On top of this, BAE Systems is providing expertise to Autonomic Logistics and Global Sustainment (support), flight test support, structural testing and UK weapons integration to the programme.
Meanwhile, BAE Systems’ Military Air & Information business is supporting sustainment efforts on the programme. The company will be an integral part in developing the F-35 global sustainment model and will be at the forefront of sustainment activities for the UK fleet on behalf of the F-35 team.
State-of-the-art in every respect, the F-35 Lightning II is a stealthy, versatile, all-weather attack aircraft that is capable of operating from both land and sea. Chosen for its accuracy and expertise, BAE Systems is involved in all three variants of the F-35 programme: the Conventional Take Off and Landing (CTOL or F-35A), the Carrier Variant (or F-35C) and the Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL or F-35B). As the producer of approximately ten per cent of each F-35’s airframe, the company is using its superior manufacturing strengths to make the rear fuselage and tailplanes fit together with such precision that there are no gaps that will reflect back radio waves. By manufacturing the components to two or three 1000ths of an inch, the stealth jet will become all but invisible to radar.
Key to delivering this level of smoothness is the company’s cutting edge facility in Samlesbury, Lancashire, which has been transformed through £150 million investment that ensures it not only delivers optimum quality parts, but also meets the challenge of quadrupling the rate of production while halving the cost in the next three years.
These enhancements are in line with the ‘Blueprint for Affordability’ that has been agreed between the US Department of Defence and contractors to halve costs by streamlining production, as Jon Evans, BAE Systems’ Head of F-35 Operations, notes: “There is no simple answer as to how we will meet this challenge, however, I like to refer to the four P’s: product, plant, process and people. Firstly, we need to install the necessary plant and capacity to deliver the planned rates; next we need to enable the people to be able to build the product and also equip them to help improve the way it is built. Thirdly, during the learning phase the operators will also find innovative ways of improving the process, which may need engineering support or offline development to complete prior to introducing improvements onto the line. Finally, we are investing in our employees’ abilities with the Business Improvement Techniques (BIT) NVQ programme in LEAN. We know the hours it takes to make each section and we have planned how this will reduce going forward.”
So far the £150 million has gone on a 10,000 square metre titanium machine shop that opened in 2010 where parts for the F-35 are ground out of titanium by eight automated milling machines; these have just three operators monitoring them and another two personnel who set up specialised tools that remove excess material; meanwhile, other employees on the floor remove excess metal from finished parts. In addition, the company has also invested in a new office building and an extended manufacturing facility, which opened in 2012 as the second part of a three phase expansion plan to meet production plans and remain at the forefront of UK manufacturing.
“We have demonstrated continued investment in our facilities over the past 13 years. That investment included the new titanium machining facility, which allows flexible manufacturing and an initial extension to the assembly facility in 2011; this will be completed by our latest extension. We are also particularly proud of the assembly facility’s moving Integrated Assembly Line, or IAL, which first came online in 2012,” says Jon. “The IAL ‘pulses’ currently every four days – usually on a Monday. The lines moves as one so every section has to be balanced in terms of work content and also complete before the deadline to allow the line to move as one.”
The line is a multi-model line making all three variants of the F-35 aircraft down the same line. A pair of products (port & starboard) will move down the line together. At each station work will be completed prior to the pulse. The pulse is effectively a very complex overhead crane system that moves the product along every four days.
“Jigs and fixtures are selected from a store based on the programme order of variants. The line also transfers the product to the machining centre, the spray facility and the equipping sections.”
In December 2015 the company announced it had begun work on a major extension to its cutting edge manufacturing facility, which will further prepare the site for a significant boost in production. Following the start of the project, the UK Government recently committed to 138 F-35 Lightning II STOVL variant aircraft for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.
The 4,500 square metre expansion is due for completion in January 2017 and is the final part of a three phase plan for the facility. Originally opened in 2003 at a cost of £11 million, the facility will be capable of manufacturing over 160 aircraft sets annually once completed; this is a whopping increase of 250 per cent from current numbers.
“The continued development gives BAE Systems the necessary physical space for the installed capacity to operate within in order to achieve the planned rates F35 is predicting. The eventual plan was always to build one aircraft every day so planning ahead and installing a building large enough to cope with the growth required in time for the necessary line expansion is key,” states Jon.
With the increased rates and cost reductions, BAE Systems has a challenging few years ahead of it, but the company is relishing the opportunity to meet demand through ongoing investments in both employees and facilities, as Jon concludes:
“You could sum it up by saying we have built 240 aircraft in 15 years and have to build another 200 in the next three, however, our continued investment in people and in facilities – especially through the latest extension work to our assembly facility – demonstrates we are ready to meet that challenge.”
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