How to Build Aircraft Articles in Half the Time

For decades, Lockheed Martin has invested in manufacturing optimization to build aircraft faster and more affordably. Those advanced manufacturing capabilities are important for bringing down the cost of production on existing programs.

With future work, the digital revolution enables a holistic approach to transformation that connects the dots between early design, rapid prototyping, production and sustainment to optimize the entire system lifecycle. The Lockheed Martin Skunk Works® team recently completed a prototype aircraft article that demonstrates how these transformational technologies could enable future aircraft articles to be built more than 50% faster, reducing total production span by 20-40%.

The prototype, dubbed CHARLIE, is an aircraft article built using full size determinant assembly (FSDA) on composite skins, enabled by digital engineering and advanced machining.

FSDA significantly reduces build time by moving drilling to the component fabrication process where it is more controlled and efficient. At assembly, manufacturing teams align pre-drilled holes, place fasteners and complete precise builds much faster. Industry has used FSDA for metallic substructures for years, but CHARLIE takes that process one step further with composite skins, unlocking quality and ergonomic improvements as well as schedule gains.

Without FSDA, the process for building an aircraft is sequential. Mechanics track skins into place, manually adjust them into the right position, apply liquid shim to keep the skin in place, drill holes, remove skins, install underlying subsystems, bond nut plates on the substructure, put the skins back on and then finally install the skins with fasteners. Drilling takes place before complex subsystems are installed to protect them from metal shavings and foreign object debris.

FSDA skins disrupt the traditional build sequence, allowing for the optimal build sequence of structure and subsystems in parallel. This is a key enabler to reduced span and cost savings.

“The further we integrate FSDA, the fewer constraints we have to design for manufacturability,” said Shawn Sauerwein, the CHARLIE program manager. “It’s more efficient for mechanics to install subsystems when there's better access and increased ergonomics. Plus, with digital engineering, we can virtually build ahead of physical build to prevent some design rework as we simulate sequence—particularly in hard to reach subsystems and tight areas. Precise digital models enable us to complete a virtual build to verify tools will fit and the optimum sequence was chosen.”

CHARLIE is the first born-digital prototype of Project StarDrive, a multi-year, up-front investment to reengineer how we develop and build aircraft, introducing processes and tools that operate in a fully integrated digital work environment and connect previously disparate systems.

With StarDrive, the team is closely measuring cost and schedule savings to produce proven, accurate and competitive program bids for future programs.

The CHARLIE results speak for themselves:

·        100% hole alignment between metallic substructure and composite parts the first time

·        Zero fastener rework

·        Zero quality escapes

·        Built 70% faster than previous articles of a similar size

With CHARLIE complete, the team is applying lessons learned to the next StarDrive prototype – POLARIS