Fighting fit!

Fighting fit!
Fighting fit!

Adrian Wilson charts the expanding role of GKN in the on-going and often controversial development of Lockheed Martin's US fighter aircraft programme.

Following its £499 million acquisition of Fokker Technologies Group at the end of October last year, GKN has considerably expanded its involvement in the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter programme. The F-35 family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multi-role fighters is still undergoing development, ten years after the first generation model made its first test flight. Now in its fifth generation, it continues to be the subject of much speculation in respect of its effectiveness, along with some astronomical cost projections. All that withstanding, a week after GKN's Fokker acquisition was completed, two new contracts for the F-35 – a €100m deal for the supply of in-flight opening doors and a follow-on contract to further develop landing gear drag brace units – were announced. Fokker has been involved in the F-35 programme since 2002, supplying electrical wiring interconnection systems, flaperons, in-flight opening doors, engine parts and arresting gear for F-35 aircraft that are currently flying and in production. GKN, meanwhile, has been responsible for the supply of wide range of composite and metal components, including bulkheads, primary and secondary structures and much of the outer engine casing, as well as electro-thermal de-icing technology and the F-35's cockpit transparency. Inside the cockpit A GKN Aerospace team received the 2014 US Department of Defense Manufacturing Technology Award for the automated thermoforming process for the F-35's canopy, which could save as much as $125m over the life of the programme. The transparency comprises a framed windshield and canopy which is produced from a single piece of stretched acrylic, with no steps or gaps in the outside mould line. Speciality coatings are applied to maintain low-observable characteristics and each unit is supplied to Lockheed Martin coated, trimmed and drilled, with bushings and seals ready for installation to the frame. Experts from the F-35 Programme Office, Naval Air Systems Command and Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory worked with the GKN team on the faster and far more precise way to manufacture such canopies. Previously, a labour-intensive manufacturing process involved skilled technicians in a six-day thermoforming effort to make the acrylic transparency shell, with constant inspection and manual adjustment of the oven's parameters necessary. The new automated method employs four cameras with vision recognition systems to monitor the forming progress, linked to a control system. The control system automatically adjusts the positioning clamps to ensure the shape remains uniform and meets stringent performance requirements. The process requires fewer expensive forming tools and has cut manufacture from six days to four or even less. Both initial and spare canopies will be produced using this process, for more than 2,000 aircraft. “We believe the team has created an elegant and highly effective solution to replace what was an intensive, manual, time-consuming and costly process,” says Ron Kato, managing director of GKN Aerospace, Special Products Group. “It has application potential across many areas of aerospace manufacturing.” Mats meet the heat GKN Aerospace supplies Pratt & Whitney with the electro-thermal heater mats for the advanced Engine Ice Protection System (EIPS) on the F-135 engine. The heater mats are manufactured at the company's plant in Luton, and GKN is also responsible for their integration into the forward fan case of the engine. This system removes the need to bleed hot air from the engine, increasing its fuel efficiency, performance and endurance. GKN secured its first major UK package of work for the F-35 programme in 2010, to supply up to $200m in composite and metallic structures to BAE Systems. It involved composite fuselages from GKN's facility on the Isle of Wight and titanium metal structures machining work at the company's plants in St. Louis, Missouri and Filton. This contract boosted the value of GKN parts on the F-35 to a value of around $2.5m per aircraft and also represented the first non-Airbus work to be carried out at the company's Filton plant, following its acquisition a year earlier. The historic Filton site dates back to 1910 and the Bristol Boxkite manufactured by the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company. By the start of World War 2 it was the largest aircraft factory in the world and by the end of the war in 1945 employed over 45,000 people. During the 1960s it contributed to Concorde and by the 1980s was manufacturing a range of major sub-assemblies and components for Airbus. Following its acquisition by GKN, some £40m has been invested in capital equipment and over the next three years, a further £25m will be spent to create the Filton Engineering Centre for over 200 design and engineering specialists. Currently, Filton has more than 1,500 employees and annual sales of over £300m. It is involved in the automated and robotised assembly of metallic and composite aircraft wings, as well as hydraulic, pneumatic, fuel and anti-ice systems for them. The operation is also equipped to make large structural parts to a maximum of 6m by 2m. Fanatical about composites GKN Aerospace is leading the industry in the development and manufacture of composite fan cases, which compared to metallic designs offer weight savings, can be designed to include fewer parts, and have demonstrated improved structural resilience. Next generation engine designs will certainly need to leverage this technology to achieve efficiency targets, the company believes. GKN's acquisition of Fokker provides it with an expanded range of composite processes, including polymer matrix composite (PMC) technology. Fokker Technologies has been actively engaged in the development of technologies for the application of thick-walled PMCs in flight-critical primary structural components for landing gears for over twenty years. For the F-35, it now has a follow-on contract from United Technologies Aerospace Systems (UTAS) for continued development towards qualification of the landing gear drag brace. A pilot plant was opened during 2015 in Marknesse in The Netherlands, where the qualification hardware will be produced in a fully-automated facility. UTAS and Fokker Technologies will continue to work together to qualify and produce developmental hardware for qualification of the PMC drag brace that could be incorporated into the main landing gear for the F-35 conventional take-off/landing (CTOL) and short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) variants. Following the Fokker acquisition, the value of all GKN Aerospace involvement in the F-35 programme has climbed to $4.5m per ship set.

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