Made in the UK: Real-life Top Gun

Behind the scenes at the hi-tech BAE plant that is at the forefront of the world\'s biggest defence project.

Published: 17th August 2015 08:21 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th August 2015 08:21 AM   |  A+A-

LONDON: 'It looks like a plastic aeroplane because it's so smooth." The controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has been called many things - overweight, underpowered, overpriced to name a few - but plastic could be a first.

However, this description of the jet fighter that will be the backbone of Allied air power for the next 50 years is in fact praise, and it comes from Cliff Robson, the man at BAE Systems in charge of manufacturing the British defence giant's contribution to the aircraft.

The plastic look that Robson, F-35 senior vice-president at BAE, one of the three main partners on the Lockheed Martin-led project, is referring to results from the ultra-fine tolerances his staff work to making components for the jet.

"We're producing parts to two or three thousandths of an inch - that's a third of the thickness of a human hair," says Robson. "It's this accuracy that helps the low observability stealth covering on the aircraft's skin work."

What this means is that the parts BAE mills out of titanium fit together so precisely that there are no gaps that will reflect back radio waves, making the jet all but invisible to radar.

That's the theory, although critics claim new technology will make stealth redundant and that the jet is no match in a dogfight with current fighters. But for the time being, the F-35 is the very cutting edge of aviation technology.

Stealth is just part of the reason why the F-35 is the world's most expensive single defence project, budgeted at $1.5?trillion (pounds 960bn) out to 2063, according to Robson, for the baseline of 3,200 aircraft the programme is working to.

"About $800bn to $900bn of that is support, manpower, fuel etc," says Robson, who leads work on what will soon become one of BAE's three biggest contracts. "The rest is development."

That development is paying off for BAE, which produces about 10pc of each F-35's structure, making the rear fuselage and tailplane. So far, 130 production F-35s have been delivered, and the company has just finished its 200th rear fuselage at its plant in Samlesbury, Lancashire, where it is in the process of ramping up production from the current rate of 40 a year to 170 by 2020.

At pounds 6.5m for each fuselage section it delivers, the company stands to make more than pounds 20bn of revenue on the chunks of each airframe alone if order numbers are met, and that's before taking into account the 5pc of each aircraft's value for which its US arm is responsible.

Right now, the company has more than 3,000 people working on the aircraft, a number Robson expects to double when production peaks.

It's no wonder the F-35 is such a priority for BAE, and the business is working on the project in some of the most advanced manufacturing facilities in the world.

But landing this work didn't come without cost. The Government - which is ordering a fleet of short-take-off and vertical landing F-35B models for its new aircraft carriers - invested pounds 2bn in the aircraft's development, and BAE has spent pounds 150m on production facilities at Samlesbury.

"It's cheap when you look at what that investment is returning to the UK," says Robson, referring to the estimated 25,000 British jobs either directly created or supported in the F-35's supply chain.

While critics have hit out at what they say is the jet's underperformance and delays, one area where the F-35 has reached for the sky has been its cost. The current price of $130m per jet is untenable and has to be reduced to a more manageable $80m.

This is where BAE's advanced manufacturing technology comes in.

"System and volume will get the cost down," says Robson, referring to the schedule that will see production quadrupled but the number of staff only doubling.

"It's part of the 'blueprint for affordability' agreed between the US Department of Defence and contractors to halve the cost. There's no question of 'will it work?'," he says. "We know how we will do it and we are doing it bit by bit."

A visit to the factory floor quickly underlines BAE's efforts to streamline production, though it's a sensitive environment where no cameras are allowed.

Opened in 2010, the 10,000sq m machine shop is filled with a gentle hum rather than screeches of a traditional facility. Eight automated milling machines grind up to 3mm of excess material of basic titanium blocks to produce parts, with just three operators monitoring them and another pair setting up the specialised tools that remove excess material.

Some come out of the machines like a giant Airfix kit that needs mounting material removed, but it's almost eerily quiet.

If it weren't for the smell of lubricant and the overhead rail systems delivering new cutting tools to the machines - it can take 90 hours to produce just a single part, and titanium's hardness means each cutter lasts just one hour - it could be a computer server room, rather than a machine shop. The level of specialism required meant BAE had to work with Swiss manufacturer Starrag to custom-design a pair of milling machines because there was nothing in the world capable of doing what was needed.

"The basic idea was sketched up on the back of a beer mat over a pint in a pub down the road," says Gary Rollins, the shop's operations manager. "The design was so advanced that it's being licensed and is producing income for BAE."

Identifying by eye a part that will go into a F-35C - "it's for the C version, the one for aircraft carrier, you can tell because it's beefier and bigger" - Rollins says that at the moment about 15pc of the parts produced deviate from the high standards required.

However, he is confident that a "pretty much zero defect rate" can be hit by 2019, something that needs to be achieved to meet the cost-cutting plans.

As he explains that an outside wall is about to knocked down to add another 5,000sq m to the shop - all without stopping production - Rollins is modest when asked whether this is the most advanced machine shop in the world.

"It's one of them, based on its system, accuracy and flexibility," he says, as he points to a plaque in the foyer that notes when the facility was opened. Naturally the plaque is made out of titanium and was machined in-house.

Across the road is the production line, where the machine shop's output and parts from other suppliers are assembled into the rear fuselage and tailplanes, which are then shipped off for final assembly in Fort Worth, Texas.

Robson says this line is as close to the efficiency of auto manufacturing as can be in aerospace - "it's not like doing up a few bolts, you can't fit aircraft fasteners on a production line which moves every 90 seconds" - so instead the line "pulses" once a week, with hard questions asked by managers if a section is not ready to move to the next stage on time.

One of those managers is head of assembly operations, Jon Evans. Surrounded by posters detailing previous aircraft made at Samlesbury, models of the F-35 and the all-important chart showing the plant's production rate and target, he points to features of the line.

"Every Monday morning, at 8am, we pulse the line," he says. "It's a matter of pride for staff not to be the last one to be ready to move their section.

"Their average response time is 43 seconds," says Evans. The production line is shaped as a  U within a U, with horizontal tailplanes built in the outside, and vertical ones on the inside, before they are married up in another area and internal pipes and wiring looms fitted.

Previously, parts would have to be individually "fitted" together with holes drilled in one component, then "pilot" holes drilled in the piece it was being joined to, then back drilling of holes and fitting fasteners once the components matched up - "fettling" in engineers' slang.

However, now the accuracy of the components means they fit precisely, eliminating delays.

"The parts are more complex but there's less complexity to putting them together," says Evans, adding that any loss of skill because jobs are now assembly is counterbalanced by the skills gains made in producing the parts.

Both Samlesbury facilities are held at exactly the same temperature - a pleasant 21C - meaning that expansion or contraction because of different temperatures is eliminated, helping with production accuracy.

"It's the same temperature at Fort Worth, the mile-long final assembly building, and all the other plants around the world where parts are produced," says Robson. Having fuselage sections that match up so precisely no matter where they were made can extend aircraft's lives, because it eliminates unnecessary strains caused by them not being "true".

BAE depends on a network of suppliers for many of the components used in the F-35, but there are none the company says it could not produce itself.

However, keeping cost down is vital in the programme, so it depends on a "robust" supply chain. It's even moving away from companies where it is not the biggest client, to ensure that its work takes precedence. Evans says Airbus is "increasingly mopping up a lot of capacity" as demand for airliners grows.

With production scheduled to last until 2030 for 3,200 jets, and maybe as long as 2045 if the F-35 defies its doubters and lands further orders, BAE is in the programme for the long run.

"The only thing that could stop us is the programme being cancelled," says Robson. "Working on it is close to a job for life."

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