Indiana, Rolls Royce and the F-35

August 31, 2012

According to INDYSTAR.com:

It outflies the speed of sound, packs enough weaponry to flatten a small town and — thanks to some Indiana-built technology — has the uncanny ability to hover like a hummingbird.

It’s the F-35, the next-generation U.S. military combat jet, and it figures to dispense rich economic benefits in Indiana over its expected production life of 20 years or more.

While Indiana contractors reap limited economic spinoffs from the current stable of fighter jets (the F-15, F-16 and F-18), the coming ramp-up to produce more than 2,400 F-35s for the Pentagon will shower billions of dollars on the state in the next two to three decades.

The biggest beneficiary: Rolls-Royce, the British airplane engine maker that has its largest jet engine site in Indianapolis.

Rolls-Royce landed the contract to equip one of three versions of the F-35 with its LiftSystem, an insanely complex technology that puts a 30,000-pound jet that flies at supersonic speed into hover mode at the touch of a button.

With the LiftSystem, runways are optional. “If they had to, they could operate out of a Wal-Mart parking lot,” said Danny Conroy, a Lockheed Martin F-35 program director…..

Rolls-Royce built a 38,000-square-foot production plant just to make the plane’s LiftFan. Located in a Plainfield industrial park, the warehouse-like building gives no hint that it’s a production site for cutting-edge aerospace technology.

Anthony Woodard, the 34-year-old manufacturing manager, recently gave a walking tour of the advanced-manufacturing plant, where the 2,800-pound LiftFans are painstakingly assembled over four weeks by a crew of just 17 workers. (The crew will expand to 35 when production hits full capacity.)

The white-painted interior is clean as a commercial kitchen. An electronic scoreboard hangs overhead like a stock ticker in a brokerage, flashing numbers that tell Woodard the status of every phase of the work flow.

Computers dictate and measure tasks, down to the tightening of bolts that’s done with electronic wrenches. They beep and flash green when the proper torque is reached and don’t let work proceed until it is.

“It is very hard to make errors,” Woodard said.

The giant fans are treated like royalty. They’re rolled by hand from one work area to the next on airframes floating an eighth of an inch above the floor. And when it comes time to clean them prior to shipment, they’re locked in a giant booth and gently blasted with dry-ice pellets by a robotic arm.

The Plainfield plant, along with a giant test cell in Indianapolis off Tibbs Avenue, are the evolutionary outcomes of 50 years of vertical-lift research by Rolls-Royce, which also produced the technology that lets the famed Harrier jump jet act like a helicopter. (The Harrier doesn’t have a lifting fan, achieving thrust only from its engine exhaust.)

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