May 27, 2004 (by Lieven Dewitte) - An array of advanced and highly accurate manufacturing machines that will produce major subassemblies for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are in the final stages of assembly and testing on the factory floor at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas.
"These are the most advanced machines ever applied to fighter aircraft assembly," said Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin executive vice president and general manager of the F-35 JSF
program. "Their efficiency and accuracy will help the F-35 achieve its goals of affordability, quality and manufacturing speed."
Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth plant will be the final assembly point for the F-35, a stealthy, supersonic multirole fighter designed to replace a wide range of aging fighter and strike aircraft. Production of the center fuselage began on May 18 at Northrop Grumman in Palmdale, Calif. Lockheed Martin will start production of the forward fuselage and wings at Fort Worth later this summer, and BAE
SYSTEMS will begin building the aft fuselage and tails at Samlesbury, England, shortly thereafter. The three major subassemblies will be joined at Fort Worth beginning next year. First flight is planned for 2006.
The new production equipment includes a flexible overhead gantry (FOG) that will mill the inside surface of the F-35's composite skin to ensure that the aircraft's outer form is exact, ensuring proper stealth performance. The machine is accurate to within 50 microns. (One micron equals one one-millionth of a meter.) Another machine, a forward-fuselage autodrill cell, can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure that the F-35 meets its ultimate production goal of one aircraft per work day. An autodrill for the wing is nearing completion, as well. Also accurate to 50 microns is a
precision milling machine with an equipment enclosure that is temperature-controlled to plus or minus one degree Fahrenheit. Temperature stability also helps assure that precision is achieved in the manufacturing process.
Large wing-assembly platforms nearing completion will have the ability to move up and down to optimize the processes for building the wing structure and installing the upper and lower wing skins. Meanwhile, the job of moving large component pieces from one work station to the next belongs to driverless, wheeled transporters called Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV). Each autonomous, battery-powered AGV is capable of toting a load of up to 35,000 pounds, and is equipped with obstacle-detection sensors to prevent collisions.
Inspection of the F-35 carbon-fiber wing skins and other composite components falls to the Laser Ultrasonic Technology (Laser UT) machine, a laser-based system designed to detect imperfections that would cause a part to be rejected. Laser UT inspects parts at a rate that is 10 times faster than current water-coupled ultrasonic inspection machines.
Other major facilities being prepared for the F-35 at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth include a building for testing the F-35's radar-cross section (stealth) performance; a structure for the application of external coatings; and a hover pit to test the short-takeoff/vertical-landing version of the F-35.