Manufacturing the F-35

02/16/2012: Earlier, we interviewed Frank Dougherty, Vice President, F-35 Production Operations provided an update on F-35 manufacturability.  Dougherty has extensive experience with both the F-22 and the F-16, and has significant domain competence in what it takes to build a combat aircraft.

This slideshow highlights production going on in the factory.

Credit: SLD 2012

SLD: There is as well a significant misunderstanding outside of the program of the very different approach to designing, testing and building the F-35 versus earlier aircraft. This program was set up is radically different from the beginning to essentially have a surge production capacity.  Is that a fair statement of kind of a disconnect from a certain template of understanding what this is all about?  It’s a very different template than a Legacy Aircraft.

Doughterty: I think with the way entering development tools have developed over the years, we’ve gone from having to do hard mock-ups, hard tooling, put together a aircraft.  Stretch out actually mock-up harnesses, and then develop which way you’re going to build those, and build physical prototype models that came through.Now with the new electronic way you design an aircraft in a scope, and proven out over F-22 and moving into F-35, all of that hard mock-up, and hard physical build up that you had to do just to verify links, and runs of all the different tubes and harnesses, and such that go through the aircraft, has been eliminated that you can essentially design that in electronically, and the very first units you build, you build the way you build the production aircraft.
You actually design it, and route it, and everything else electronically, so when we translate that to installing it in an aircraft, we’re doing it on the very first model is the way we’ll do it in production.

SLD: The digital thread production model?

Dougherty: Yes.

SLD: And also not widely understood is how so much of this approach has come from innovation in the commercial aerospace sector. Builders of the 787 and A350 certainly have pioneered a lot of this.  And even the 330 tankers are an example.  To develop the tanker, Airbus had to redo the entire 330 as a digital aircraft in order to actually come up with an effective name of building a tanker.  And that’s kind of a footnote to how wider the difference is from when the A330 was originally designed 30 years ago.

Dougherty: I think so. And in fact, I was responsible for building F 22s, prior to coming here.  And of course, that was the first Fifth Gen Fighter, but it was really designed around performance, not around manufacturability.But we learned a lot from that period, and learned a lot from what we do on F 22, and were able to design in, into that digital thread, design in manufacturability, and be able to set up tooling, and methods and sequences.

From the very beginning, we knew how the aircraft would go together.  We knew where the issues would be, and we were able to proof that out on the very first SDD Jets.  So as we transformed into delivery production, we were ready to build a aircraft the way it needed to be, and that’s very different from the experience I had back in the old days when I built F-16s in the line out here, and at even the very beginning of the F-22.We had some dramatic changes we had to make early in that because we were really just learning how to use those digital tools to translate those, but we’ve taken all those lessons learned now, incorporated them into our design, and built an F-35, and had dramatically different results right out of the chute.

SLD: How important is manufacturability for risk of being successful global program export, and ability to build a global fleet aircraft?

Dougherty: It’s really the key to affordability.  From the very beginning, it was designed with the intent that we would be able to build one a day, and deliver one a day.  And so it was designed, so it would go together, so it would be compartmentalized, so the work could be broken down into those segments, and so the aircraft could progress through, and quickly come together, and when it came off the end there wasn’t a lot of tweaks, and adjustment changes to make.

The aircraft was ready to go put gas in it, load software in it, and fly it, and that is different from with the more handcrafted F-22s that we knew we weren’t going to build, but a few hundreds of those.  That was really designed for performance, and optimized for the performance of the aircraft after it was delivered.  This one obviously has the performance characteristics in there, but we were really leaned towards the manufacturability, and affordability available to put out one a day.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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