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Lockheed outlines F-35 cost-cutting production changes

Lockheed Martin on 18 February shared some of the efforts it is taking to reduce the cost of a conventional takeoff and landing F-35A to less than $80 million by 2019.

Lockheed has formally evaluated 131 potential cost-saving investments across its entire supply chain as part of the “blueprint for affordability.” Of those, 58 ideas have been approved for implementation, Lockheed's F-35 director Lorraine Martin tells reporters during a media visit to the company's Arlington, Virginia, corporate headquarters.

Lockheed and program partners BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman already have spent $49 million to identify those projects, she says. The three have vowed to spend a combined $170 million over two years on retooling and other investments meant to drive cost out of the programme through the end of production. The government has promised $300 million in similar investment when and if Lockheed can bring the price per jet to below $80 million, with a Pratt & Whitney F135 engine, by 2019.

Including the engine, an F-35A now costs between $110 million and $115 million.

An example is simplifying the way Lockheed creates the diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI) bump inside the aircraft’s two engine intakes. They now are created using a 5h process that requires a robot to build up coats of paint like layers of a pearl.

A new approach involves a second robot that inserts an injection mould into the engine inlet and fills it with a precise amount of stealth coating and allows it to cure. The process does not have to be done in the paint barn and allows work on other parts of the fuselage because it does not produce paint fumes or spray.

Lockheed spent $742,000 to develop the new process and projects to save $6,000 per aircraft once implemented before the end of 2015. Over the life of the programme, that translates to $27 million.

Some production changes were derived from lessons learned building the existing 120-plus F-35s. Instead of buying aluminium in 5,896kg (13,000lb) chunks and machining them into bulkheads, Lockheed now buys 3,760kg bulkhead blanks that require much less finish work.

“This is not a big technology one, this is a maturity one. But we had to change the engineering drawings. We had to get it approved and it bought its way onto investment.” she says. “When you build a house, you don’t go out and buy a tree, you buy two-by-fours. That’s what we’re doing. We were buying the tree and we went down to the exact bulkhead we need.”

For an investment of $652,000, Lockheed will be able to eliminate $65,000 per aircraft, Martin says. In another example, the company reworked the way it drills thousands of holes through F-35 components. Instead of using an oil-based coolant for its metal-drilling bits, it plans to use compressed liquid nitrogen to cool the bits to below freezing.

“We aren’t submitting them unless we think they have the right kinds of returns, not only over the whole life of the programme, but also that we would get our money back,” Martin says. “So that incentivises us to find the best projects and get them implemented as quickly as possible for both the US government and for the industry team.”

The blueprint does not officially begin until low-rate initial production (LRIP) lot 9, but Martin says Lockheed offered $260,000 in savings per aircraft in LRIP 8. The 43-aircraft deal was finalised with the US government in late 2014. Martin says that other projects approved prior to sealing a deal for LRIP 9 will allow a quadrupling of those savings in that lot for a cut of nearly $1 million per jet. Lockheed expects to negotiate LRIP 9 in parallel with LRIP 10 beginning this summer.

“That’s no chump change”, Martin said of the overall savings. “Every month, every week new projects get approved and as I go through negotiations, we’ll roll that right in.”

By including the projected cost savings in the final LRIP 8 contract, Lockheed assumes responsibility if the cost effectiveness of those production changes falls short. If a project is expected to save $10,000 per aircraft but yields only a $5,000 per-jet savings, Lockheed must honor the contract and sell each F-35 at a lower price, she says.

“Whatever I sign up to build it for, that’s all I’m going to get,” Martin says.

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