BAE Systems looks to speed up F-35 production with facility

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BAE Systems has moved closer towards automated one-a-day production of parts for the F-35 fighter jet by officially opening its extended factory.

Company bosses launched the enlarged facility on 23 March in Samlesbury, Lancashire, which will enable BAE to speed up manufacturing of the F-35’s rear fuselage and tail using assembly-line technology due for completion by September this year.

The elevated monorail system will automatically pick up and move a component from one station to the next, replacing the much slower method used until now of having engineers and tools moved around the factory floor.

Going from the current rate of one component set a week to one a day required a shift to the kind of automated high-volume production methods used by the automotive industry, said Vijay Panchal, BAE’s F-35 assembly transition manager.

‘Typically the aerospace industry in the past hasn’t had the volume of aircraft,’ he told The Engineer. ‘The F-35 is fairly unique in terms of 3,000 aircraft being manufactured over its lifespan. That demands us to think in volumes of one aircraft every day.’

The new system, designed with the help of US firm NovaTech, will comprise 21 stations across the extended manufacturing hall, with components taking four minutes to move between each one. Previously this would have taken several hours.

This second part of a £150m three-phase expansion of the facility will enable one component set to be built every three days. A further extension due for completion in 2016 will take production up to one set a day, with more than 200 to be finished a year.

Speeding up the production rate would enable BAE to secure its position within the F-35 programme (led by Lockheed Martin), according to senior vice-president Chris Allam.

‘We’ve got about 2,000 people that work on F-35 at the moment in the UK,’ he told The Engineer. ‘A lot of those are on the Samlesbury site. So what we’re doing here is all about keeping that going.’

BAE’s improved production methods have so far reduced manufacturing costs by around 30 per cent, according to F-35 production director Tim Boness. He said the company aimed to reduce the remaining costs by a further 70 per cent.