The Digital I.T. Thread Behind the F-35
At present, F-35 Lightning II/ Joint Strike Fighter production is led by Lockheed Martin, with BAE and Northrop-Grumman playing major supporting roles, and many subcontractors below them. F-35 main production and final assembly is currently slated to take place in Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, TX plant, though Italy and Britain may end up getting Final Assembly and Check-Out (FACO) plants of their own.
In order to cut F-35 production cycle time, and hence production costs, the team currently produces major sections of the aircraft at different feeder plants, and “mates” the assemblies at Fort Worth. This is normal in the auto industry, but it’s a departure from the usual fighter-building process which has raw materials and individual parts or small sub-assemblies feed into production lines, then rolls finished fighters out the other end. The precise tolerances required for a stealthy fighter, however, are much more exacting than even high-end autos. To cope, Manufacturing Business Technology reports that the team has turned to an integrated array of back-end IT systems in order to manage this new process, from CATIA CAD, to Visiprise MES, TeamCenter PLM, SAP ERP, and even a locally-designed Production & Inventory Optimization System (PIOS) for manufacturing resources planning and supply chain management.
This ‘digital thread’ has been very successful for the team, with part fits showing incredible precision, and successful coordination of plants around the end schedule for key events like the Dec 18/07 F-35B rollout. The system’s ultimate goal is to cut a plane’s production cycle time from the usual 27-30 months to about a year, and lead time from order creation to printed, matched manufacturing orders from 15-20 days to 6-8 days. Read MBT’s “Fly high on a thread” to learn more.