For the small army of production managers around the world assigned to build F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF), no other sequence of numbers can be more important:
This is the projected rate of F-35 production during the first six years of low rate initial production phase (LRIP), which actually started in 2007.
My previous two posts explored the recent past of the Lockheed Martin F-35 and Boeing 787 and the similarities of their darkest moments. This post and a follow-up later this week will explore the challenges common to both programs as each seeks to overcome their troubled development phase and dramatically boost production output starting next year.
Here's a scary thought: the F-35's production rate listed above is just the baseline.
Crowley, Lockheed Martin's executive vice president for the F-35, told me there
is a lot of "upside" in the last two years in the LRIP phase. The US Air Force
has recently mused about increasing their order in LRIP-6 from 48 to 110, and
then sustaining that order rate for several years.
If funding and order profiles hold -- and assuming no show-stoppers emerge in flight test phase -- full-rate production for F-35 starts in five years. Factory output is currently expected to increase to one aircraft per working day as early as 2016, an astonishing pace for a fighter with low-observable characteristics.
It's all a familiar tune to my ears.
Boeing's 787 program, both blessed and cursed by insatiable demand for its next-generation airliner, at this time last year planned to be well on its way toward a "low-rate" output of 10 aircraft per month by 2010, perhaps jumping to 16 per month by 2012. No previous commercial widebody was built at a faster monthly rate than 10 even at its peak.
We know how well the original plan worked out for the 787. Boeing's production system breakdowns revealed over the past year not only delayed first delivery by at least 15 months. The production ramp also has been slowed from a sprint to a crawl.
Details are sketchy, but Boeing has disclosed a goal to reach the previous low rate of 10 per month in 2012, or two years later. Opening a second production line has been discussed, but it's not entirely clear if that step would help exceed the low rate pace or merely reach it.
programs certainly face their own set of pressures, but the manufacturer at
least has full control of setting aircraft design requirements and the funding
profile that dictates the production rate. A defense contractor, by contrast,
enjoys some protection from pure market forces, but lacks those two key advantages.
If Boeing's 787 ramp-up proved far beyond the capacity of its chosen industry team, despite all of the management advantages of a commercially-driven program, how does the F-35 program hope to avoid the same fate?