The US Office of Naval Research (ONR) recently received a national manufacturing award for developing a method to build canopies for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II that could save the military $125 million over the life of the programme.

ONR spearheaded the effort to automate a thermoforming process used to create the F-35 canopy – the transparent portion of the cockpit enclosure – that will be applied to at least 2,000 of the aircraft. The new process also makes the manufacturing work safer, ONR says.

Officials from ONR’s Manufacturing Technology (ManTech) program accepted the Department of Defense’s Joint Defense Manufacturing Technology Achievement Award at the Defense Manufacturing Conference in San Antonio.

“This award confirms our commitment to developing the most efficient and cost-effective ways to manufacture some of the most critical hardware our Sailors and Marines use,” John Carney, director of ONR’s ManTech programme, says in a prepared statement.

The existing canopy manufacturing process requires loading an acrylic shell into a forming tool, which then is slid into a 93.3°C (200°F) oven. The canopy forms within the mold over six days, during which “workers regularly enter the oven to makes observations and manually adjust positioning clamps to control the forming process”, ONR says.

ONR’s new method includes cameras and clamps that adjust automatically to maintain a uniform canopy shape, thus relieving workers from having to enter the oven. The process also takes only two to three days, ONR says.

F-35 line - US Air Force

Development of the automation process began in 2011 and cost $1.3 million, which ONR officials said was a worthy investment that would yield substantial savings. GKN Aerospace Transparency Systems plans to begin building canopies using the automated process in May.

“The potential cost savings represent a huge return on a relatively small initial investment by ONR,” says Neil Graf, programme officer for ONR ManTech.

Lockheed has launched a series of similar efforts to identify alternate materials and innovative manufacturing processes for F-35 components. It is seeking immediate investments it or suppliers can make that will yield massive savings over the construction of 3,000-plus aircraft.

Lockheed, and engine manufacturing partners Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce have committed to investing a combined $170 million over the next two years on these affordability initiatives, called the Blueprint to Affordability.

The company in September outlined several of a total 600 projects “across the entire supply base” that are in the works to streamline production and reduce manufacturing costs.

An example is the decision to use 3-D printing rather than forging to manufacture the bowframe that crosses the canopy. Switching methods could save $31.5 million over the programme of record at an investment of just $342,000, Lockheed says.