For, financial, technological and political reasons the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter’s supply chain and assembly structure has evolved to be one of the most diverse ever developed for a military aircraft programme.
This complex arrangement stretches across the globe and includes nine partner countries, overseas assembly plants, selected customers, major tier 1 suppliers, right down to small SMEs.
So how did Lockheed Martin involve the supply chain in the early development of the F-35 and how do they contribute its technological advances and production processes?
Kimberly Ashmun, director of F-35 international supply chain management, explains: “As a first step, the F-35 programme established Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) with our nine partner countries. This MOU extended to local suppliers within these countries as well as covered existing teaming agreements with Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems.
“This was a vital step, as it ensured that key capabilities and world class skills were being supported throughout all levels of the supply chain in each core country. These agreements are intended to survive throughout the life of the programme and were based upon a best-value, performance-based model.
“With an international project of the F-35’s complexity it is critical that all the different elements are successfully integrated. To this end, during the development phase of the programme, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics established major sub-system industry integrators based on their specialised system expertise.”
The original partner countries aside from the US included: the UK, Italy, Australia, Turkey, Norway, Netherlands, Canada and Denmark, as well as foreign military sale (FMS) customers - Israel, the Republic of Korea and Japan – where Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has an assembly facility in partnership with Lockheed Martin to build the aircraft. However, this kind of international cooperation is just a progression of Lockheed’s international operations, according to Ashmun.
“Lockheed Martin has an indigenous presence in multiple countries. We have historically been very successful at working in these countries on our other platforms such as the F-16 and C-130. Building on this expertise is what ensures the F-35 is a successful project. We’re also immensely proud that our sourced supply chain builds 75% of the F-35, ensuring that there are significant economic benefits to our partners on this project.
“Overall, our global footprint represents over 1,200 large, small, domestic and international suppliers across more than 15 different countries. The range of services and products that we procure, manufacture and assemble are equally diverse ranging from airframe subassemblies to training services to small specialised components.”
To deliver the fighter aircraft in the numbers that are going to be required for such a large and lengthy programme, Lockheed Martin needs to keep a tight rein on its supply chain. However, Ashmun stresses this is not an example of an OEM wielding a big stick to keep its suppliers in line.
“Operational excellence is a key tenet of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics’ business model,” she says. “Our suppliers play a very important role in supporting our business and we acknowledge those who are highly committed in both service and quality of their product. We are also committed to supporting small businesses as typically they are dedicated, willing to invest in training and developing their staff and very supportive on a local level.
“One way we foster a collaborative environment is by constant communication and sharing best practices across markets. For example, we established the Global Quality Council (GQC) in 2013 to support supply chain improvements and share best practices between industry partners.
“This group represents all the major suppliers and co-producers on the F-35, as well as our other platforms across Lockheed Martin Aeronautics and the wider Lockheed Martin business. The GQC is actively engaged in quality transformations across the supply chain through facilitating improved performance, enhanced communications, and sharing of ideas between companies.”
Assessed to be best
A demonstration of the global nature of the F-35 programme is the fact that final assembly is not only taking place at the company’s US plant in Fort Worth, Texas but also Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facilities in Nagoya, Japan (the Mitsubishi plant mentioned previously) and in Cameri, Italy in partnership with aerospace prime Leonardo. All the partner companies were carefully assessed to ensure they had the required capabilities and to safeguard against disruptions in supply and assembly.
“When Lockheed Martin evaluates potential companies for future opportunities, we look for suppliers with proven performance in the aerospace business where similar processes and standards are used,” Ashmun comments. “For example, we established partnerships with Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems based on their willingness to invest, their key capabilities and world class skills. It is suppliers like these with domain experience who enable the development and production of a world class fifth-generation fighter.”
As the programme moves into the transitional stage from low rate initial production (LRIP) to full scale rates, Lockheed says this has allowed it to introduce measures that will bring costs down.
“We are now evolving our supply chain to inject more competition and as a result continue to offer the best value to our customers. This risk reduction coupled with product qualification enables this realignment and has produced significant programme savings. We will continually evaluate our entire industrial base to identify new supply chain candidates, using best practices and lessons learned across the industry.”
The F-35 Lightning II is a multi-role military aircraft consisting of three variants designed to offer different operational requirements. The A variant is a conventional take-off and landing(CTOL) fighter, the B variant is a short take off and vertical-landing aircraft (STOVL) and the C variant is designed for operations on catapult assisted aircraft carriers. Despite the diversity of the technology involved in all three, Ashmun asserts this does not impact hugely on the production rate of the programme.
“While there are three unique variants, the value proposition was to design and build on a common assembly line to achieve economies of scale. There is a significant amount of commonality across the three variants which minimises the expected challenges in the final assembly of the aircraft.”
With parts and subassemblies being shipped from diverse corners of the globe, what happens if there is a factory fire at a key supplier or there are transport problems?
“Our global industrial base provides a diverse landscape of alternate sources to help reduce and mitigate risks. The multiple production locations and global network on the F-35 programme have been cultivated over time to provide alternatives for critical components in these types of situations.”
With deliveries of the aircraft scheduled beyond 2035, Ashmun says there is still a lot of scope for the supply chain to further evolve and economise.
“The F-35 programme has been operating since 2001, successfully completing critical milestones for development, production and sustainment of the aircraft. Currently Lockheed Martin Aeronautics has delivered 220 aircraft with Initial Operational Capability (IOC) achieved for the US Airforce and US Marine Corps. As the programme stabilises and transitions from development to full rate production and sustainment of the fleet, our sourcing strategy also evolves to meet and exceed the challenging demands of a totally integrated programme in support of providing an affordable 5th generation fighter.”