The T/R Module Production Base for the F35 Lightning II’s Radar

An Interview With Douglas Lawton, vice president, Baltimore Manufacturing, Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems

In early July, Second Line of Defense talked with Douglas Lawton, a conversation prompted by an SLD visit to the Northrop Grumman plant to watch the transmit and receive (or T/R) module production line : this line is central to the manufacturing process of multiple Northrop Grumman radar products, including the AN/APG-81 fighter radar for the F-35 Lightning II aircraft.  The T/R module is a key element of the manufacturing process to support the upsurge in production of the F-35.  The T/R module part of the aircraft is based on multiple years of manufacturing experience, so it’s a fairly low risk proposition to build a radar capability for the aircraft from this T/R module production line. It’s not simply a Research & Development project; rather is it is based multiple years of actual manufacturing.

The above slides, provided by Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems and accompanying this story, show three aspects of the story:

  • The first photo shows the family of common AESA technologies from which the F-35 radar derives its heritage and, in turn, contributes to the further evolution of the common family of capabilities.
  • The second photo shows the APG-81 AESA radar for the F-35.
  • The third photo shows a high school as seen from the air via the radar.

***

SLD: One of the things that I was struck by when visiting the plant and viewing the actual manufacturing of these modules was how you actually approached R&D in the manufacturing of the modules. That is to say, there was a very close relationship between how you’re manufacturing the chips and, for any changes you want to make in the capability of those chips, the decisions are being made with regard to manufacturability. The changes aren’t just on a briefing slide or an abstract concept. You’re going from enhanced capability to “How can I manufacture that enhanced capability.” That seems to be an important centerpiece of what I saw in the factory.

Lawton: Our approach to producing T/R modules is something that continually evolves.  For example, we’ve just gone through an exercise on the F-35 T/R modules to re-shape the requirements and test screenings at the chip level, to improve both the chip yields and to further optimize the yields at the T/R module level, so the requirements of the chip and T/R module are very much in synch, optimizing performance and cost.  The process of building, testing, learning and further improving is an integral element of the innovation and evolution of our T/R module products.

SLD: The conventional wisdom in looking at R&D tends to look at a scientific effort that goes to prototypes and then you address manufacturing.  In actual fact in this particular case, the prototype is already part of the manufacturing process. It’s really a different way to look at what you’re doing. Is that correct?

Lawton: That is correct.  We really do have a unique ability to produce high-quality, technically discriminating T/R modules in both high quantities and in prototype development quantities. Our T/R module manufacturing processes are foundational processes where each T/R built is leveraging past programs, using the same manufacturing technologies, operators and processes, just expanding the envelope from program-to-program.

Building T/R modules is relatively low risk once you get past that initial development start-up, which is ascertaining: What do I have from a chip performance standpoint?  What do I have from a T/R module performance standpoint?    Once you have that solidified, building them is really straightforward and low risk.

SLD: But this is a core competence that NGES keeps for itself.  The company’s intent on keeping this as a core competence that allows it to address building new radars.

Lawton: Exactly. I mean when you look at where we’re investing our money in Manufacturing, the manufacturing and test of T/R modules is one of our primary investments.

SLD: So, in terms of IRAD?

Lawton: In terms of both process development/optimization and capitalization.  It’s absolutely a core competency for Electronic Systems.

Our investment strategy gets back to understanding what your discriminators are and investing in those discriminators to the point where, when you do outsource some elements, it allows you to be the smart buyer.

There is an article in the July-August 2009 edition of the Harvard Business Review that is titled “Restoring American Competitiveness.”  The premise of the article is that decades of destructive outsourcing of manufacturing has left the U.S. industry without the capability to invent the next-generation of high-technology products.

Understanding and investing in your discriminating capabilities facilitates future innovation and organizational growth.

SLD: Presumably, the fact that you’re making these chips and they get assembled into T/R modules and ultimately into radars allows you to provide a broad spectrum of capability and solutions, depending on what the platform itself is capable of supporting. You’re building across a spectrum of platforms and can support whatever way customers want to go with radars for their platforms.

Lawton: That’s exactly my point. For example, comparing a large ship-based antenna to one of our smaller UAV-based AESA antennas tells a very compelling story that says, “Our capabilities, our technologies are independent of platforms.  You just tell us what the platform needs are, and we’ll leverage our legacy T/R module products to produce a T/R module that is commensurate with those needed capabilities.” We’ve purposely designed our AESA products to be scalable and modular in order to leverage our existing manufacturing investment and prior learning. The bottom line is it’s the same technologies, the same processes, the same equipment, and the same factory; no matter what the platform might be.

Credit: The APG-81 AESA radar, Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems

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