Prism Magazine - March 2003
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The Sky's The Limit

- By Dan McGraw     

The new Joint Strike Fighter is one of the most sophisticated war machines ever conceived and may also change the way engineering is taught.

When the requirements for the Joint Strike Fighter airplane were first proposed by the Pentagon in the early 1990s, many in the defense industry thought the government was asking for the impossible. The next generation fighter jet, worth $200 billion to whomever would build it, needed to be the most flexible war machine ever built.

It needed to fly at supersonic speeds and have enemy radar evading stealth capabilities. It would be the first such fighter rugged enough to land on carriers for the Navy but also with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities for the Marine Corps. The Air Force wanted the latest in digital technology, with a wide range of bombing capabilities—from 2,000 pound air-to-surface missiles to gun turrets mounted on the wing. And it needed to have a travel radius of 600 nautical miles.

Besides these tech specifications, there were other issues the builder of this plane had to deal with. The JSF would be a true multinational fighter plane. Other countries would not just purchase it; they would help design planes specific to their needs. But the real kicker on the project was cost. Even though the JSF would do much more than any previous fighter jet, the Defense Department wanted the plane at a cheaper cost than the current F-16s and F-22s.

And one more thing. Whoever would get the contract could be assured that their company would survive. In the world of consolidation and mergers among defense contractors, the loser might not be able to keep going.

When Lockheed Martin beat out Boeing in October 2001, and was awarded the $200 billion JSF contract that stretches over 25 years, it was the largest military contract ever awarded. Partly because of the contract, Lockheed Martin is adding 4,500 jobs, while Boeing laid off 30,000 in 2002. From a logistical standpoint, the next- generation fighter is one of the most challenging military engineering projects ever attempted. On a number of levels, from manufacturing to cost controls to ever changing software requirements, the JSF program will dominate military aeronautical engineering through the first half of this century. In fact, the JSF may be the last conventional fighter plane built as the military moves toward remote-controlled attack aircraft.

The earliest challenge for Lockheed Martin, which will manufacture the plane in Fort Worth, Tex., is the hiring of so many engineers to make the JSF a reality. In 2002, Lockheed Martin was averaging 30 to 50 engineers hired every week–by the end of the year, the company had hired 3,000 people for the project, most of them engineers.

" Bringing more people on every day continues to be a challenge," says John Fuller, vice president of Lockheed Martin's JSF F-35 Air Vehicle Unit. Fuller says that one way the company is managing such a huge workforce is to group them into integrated product teams (IPTs). Made up of Lockheed Martin's prime contractors on the project—BAE Systems and Northrup Grumman, as well as suppliers and subcontractors—each IPT unit will have specific tasks. "We feel very strongly about that approach," Fuller says. "You get the best value for the customer if you create a team of multidisciplined folks, put them in a cage together, and let the best ideas come out of that."

Change in Course

The interdisciplinary nature of the project is generating the need for engineers with backgrounds in many areas. Lockheed Martin is hiring mechanical, electrical, aeronautical, and software engineers. The major difference between this fighter jet and its predecessors is not innovation but process. The engineers in this case did not start with a mandate to make a plane fly faster and higher and with certain payload requirements. Instead, the design of the JSF owed as much to the requirements of the factory floor and the ability to fix the plane cheaply in the hangar when it breaks down.

" Every decision we make across the program has to address cost," explains Jim Engelland, the JSF systems integration director. "We've always worked under a performance mantra, that is, get as much performance out of an aircraft as we can. Before JSF, nobody ever said, ‘If I can add five pounds here, this part will be easier to manufacture and will cost less.' We have asked all of our integrated product teams to design and develop as though they were spending their own money."

The change in philosophy was due to budgetary contractions in the 1990s. During the Cold War, the armed services asked for military hardware and it was delivered with little thought to cost. Though the defense budget is increasing in fiscal year 2003 by 11 percent (to $335 billion), it decreased by 50 percent from 1990 to 1997. In 1993, engineers at MIT formed the Lean Aerospace Initiative (LAI) to help defense contractors deal with the budget cuts. The LAI was a consortium of academics, labor unions, defense contractors, and government agencies that worked to explore better ways to deploy military technology at a reasonable price. Lockheed Martin was one of the defense contractors that participated (and continues to do so) in the LAI.

" The LAI didn't come up with technology specifically," says LAI director Earll Muman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. "We were a learning community that helped contribute knowledge that allowed the military and manufacturers to look at some of these problems in new ways.

One of the new ways the Lockheed Martin engineers addressed the problem of cost and performance was designing the manufacturing system before the detailed design of the aircraft. "They said to themselves, ‘if we can cut out this step we can cut time and save money,'" Murman says. "Thus, the final product was the result of thinking how the manufacturing would affect the final design. The JSF is very innovative on how they approach engineering and manu-facturing. That type of thinking is revolutionary."

The result is a plane that performs to the government specs but can also be run off the assembly line in 27 days. There are three versions of the JSF, but each has 80 percent of the design in common. The conventional takeoff and landing version (CTOL) will replace F-16s and A-10s in the Air Force. The short takeoff, vertical landing version (STOVL), will be the first supersonic aircraft that takes off in short distances and lands vertically. It will be used by the Marine Corps and replace Britain's Harrier Jump Jet. The carrier-based version (CV) will have a longer wing span to land on carrier ships.

The difficulty with this design was to satisfy everyone. For example, the Air Force's CTOL version needed great range, while the Marine Corps STOVL needed a high-powered fan to allow the vertical landing. The result is that the space used for the fan on the STOVL is used for additional fuel on the CTOL. The wings on the CV version are essentially the same design as the other two versions, but use a more rugged material skin to make them hold up on the bouncy landings on the carrier.

The first preproduction aircraft are expected to fly in 2005, with the first planes expected to roll off the assembly line in 2008, at a cost of $37 million per plane. Over the projected production run, more than 4,000 of the JSF are expected to be built at the Fort Worth plant.

The flexibility of the JSF is not restricted to the physical design but also includes the software that will help fly the planes and deliver the weapons. The software in past fighters used analog instead of digital technology and was designed for very narrow and specific purposes. "The old weapons systems are very rigid," says Hal Carter, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Cincinnati and a former Air Force colonel. "It is very expensive economi-cally and politically to insert new technology into old weapons. The thing about the JSF is that they can design digital concepts right from the beginning. As a result, retrofitting new technology won't be the problem it has been."

For engineers, the lessons of the JSF are clear. Thinking about manufacturing and systems are as important as implementing the latest and greatest technology. Murman believes that the JSF program will help engineering educators bridge the gap between pure applied science and practical engineering. "The only way engineering educators can become competent in these broader areas is by spending some time in industry," he says. "We need to understand the needs of manufacturing better. We need to teach the importance of teamwork. In that sense, the JSF, which is taking innovative steps, provides a rich opportunity for engineering educators to learn about these broader issues."

The lessons are not lost on some engineering departments. The University of Texas-Arlington, with nearly 4,000 graduate and undergraduate engineering students is just a 20-minute drive from the Lockheed Martin facility. The school will begin tailoring some courses to fit the JSF program. The programs are not finalized as yet, but UTA Dean of Engineering Bill Carroll said the school is working hard to "smooth the interface" between the school and Lockheed Martin. UTA will likely offer new degree programs based upon the JSF program, as well as offer continuing-education courses for current Lockheed Martin engineers already working on the project.

" It is a tremendous opportunity for us to have such a project as this in our own backyard," Carroll says. "We will use the JSF in some curriculum, as a way to teach many issues in engineering, including lean manufacturing. We can respond to their needs in many ways, and in turn, we can respond to our students' needs."


Dan McGraw is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Tex.
He can be reached at

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