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Home News Archive Can Lockheed Martin Ramp-up F-35 Production to Record Levels?

Can Lockheed Martin Ramp-up F-35 Production to Record Levels?

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Can Lockheed Martin Ramp-up F-35 Production to Record Levels?
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In its August 13, 3009 edition of Flight Daily News, Flight International magazine asks whether Lockheed Martin can actually ramp-up production of its F-35 “Lightning II” Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) from its current pace of one aircraft per month to an unprecedented pace of 20 aircraft per month, assembling three production variants on the same line while managing a global supply chain. Unsurprisingly, Lockheed Martin says it can—by learning from Airbus and Toyota.

While the program is currently struggling to hold schedule in its system design/development (SDD) prototyping phase, Flight International notes that “current acquisition plans call for dramatically raising output until a new fighter is delivered every working day, excluding holidays and weekends, or about 240 jets in a year.” The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported that “problems and delays are largely the residual effects from the late release of engineering drawings, design changes, delays in establishing a supplier base, and parts shortages, which continue to cause delays and force inefficient production line work-arounds where unfinished work is completed out o f station.”

Moreover, Flight International reports that the JSF’s manufacturing system is still “struggling to overcome the design changes imposed by the [Short Take-off/Vertical Landing (STOVL)] weight attack team (SWAT)” which designed-out nearly 5,000 pounds of weight from the STOVL version—which also affected the design of the other two JSF variants (Conventional Take-off/Landing, or CTOL, and Carrier Variant (CV). The JSF program variants are discussed hereAs part of its redesign efforts, the JSF team executed a “major redesign” on the wing’s production method, which saved weight by reducing tolerances for the machined components. One problem: the program’s supply chain “lacked the tools required to meet the new specifications,” which caused schedule slippage. The article quotes the JSF spokesperson as saying – “It’s really about the parts … not arriving on time. It’s not the producibility. The parts did not arrive on time so you have out of station work. … So you’re not doing it in the process you want and it takes longer.” In sum, the JSF program team saved itself significant weight, but only at the cost of disrupting its supply chain and, ultimately, its production line.

Airbus knows about production delays stemming from design issues. Its A380 aircraft deliveries were delayed by nearly two years, because of configuration management and change control problems (different facilities were using different versions of CATIA software). Another issue facing Airbus is management of its far-flung global supply chain. In 2006, the company announced that it was initiating a “full review of the supply chain for its A380 superjumbo following production difficulties which have led to a delay in deliveries ….”

Similarly, Boeing’s 787 supply chain issues have been called a “nightmare”  and have resulted in delays to aircraft deliveries. An aerospace-technology.c om article points out that Boeing’s supply chain leads individual suppliers to maximize their own self interest at the expense of the program’s objectives. In the 787 supply chain, “a complicated array of companies share the risk and the profits of the new airliner. That means financial burdens will inevitably shift up and down the line as each company protects its own interest.” Moreover, the article quotes an observer as saying, “If Boeing mismanaged anything, it is that they have tried to introduce an innovation in their supply systems at the same time they have innovated in product and assembly. Boeing should have held all systems and suppliers close to their assembly lines to facilitate cooperation between suppliers and Boeing.” In addition, “Boeing probably underestimated the size of the risks involved,” according to another quote in the aerospace-technology.com article.

So if Airbus and Boeing both stumbled, in terms of program management, supply chain management, and change control, what makes the JSF team think it can do any better. According to the Flight International article, three little words: Toyota Production System. The JSF program team “has sought out lessons from the Toyota Production System,” which is generally considered the leader of lean manufacturing processes and principles. In fact, the JSF team intention is to create a “Fighter Production System” that will be the benchmark for other defense production lines.

The JSF team will need it. They will need to deliver one aircraft every working day; the previous modern-day record was held by the F-16 jet, in which production peaked at 15 per month. Moreover, the plan calls for the unprecedented volume to come from a single production line handling three different variants. Though Lean Principles envision (and even encourage) production line diversity, it will be a first for a defense program—and it will make supply chain and logistics management even more crucial to program success. Is the JSF team up to the challenge?

They are working on it. The Flight International article notes that the JSF program “wants to create a single flowpath inside the final assembly centre for all sections of the F-35.” Certainly that would seem to be a step in the right direction, but the Toyota Production System Lean Principles would seem to dictate that the program work to create a single flow throughout its supply chain, ensuring that parts arrive in time but not so early as to build wasteful inventory buffers between production steps. As Boeing learned to its detriment, focusing on internal management and internal factory efficiencies, while ignoring bottle-necks and inefficiencies in the supply chain, is a fundamental program management error.

Moreover, the JSF team also needs to focus on deploying risk indicators and controls as deeply into its supply chain as possible. They will need real-time status (or as close to is as possible) on parts and components and sub-assemblies in a disparate number of far-flung factories and shop floors, and they won’t get it at a weekly Ft. Worth staff meeting. In my view, they should take a hard look at the Production Control Center Boeing (finally) developed for its 787 program, which I believe is a revolutionary and much needed approach for managing a dispersed supply chain.

To sum up, the JSF program team has set for itself an incredibly ambitious goal of producing a finished aircraft every single working day. It’s set the goal despite early design and supply chain problems, and despite almost universal history among other aircraft programs that says it can’t be done. But at least the team has identified some worthy companies to benchmark against and learn lessons from. The question remains, however, whether the program team can forget the defense industry’s historical program management practices – that don’t work well in the 21st century – and deploy a truly innovative approach that breaks new ground. If they can, then they may have a chance.




Effective January 1, 2019, Nick Sanders has been named as Editor of two reference books published by LexisNexis. The first book is Matthew Bender’s Accounting for Government Contracts: The Federal Acquisition Regulation. The second book is Matthew Bender’s Accounting for Government Contracts: The Cost Accounting Standards. Nick replaces Darrell Oyer, who has edited those books for many years.