A Hybrid Manufacturer For A Hybrid Airplane: An Update On V-22 Osprey Manufacturing
By Robbin Laird
The importance of a manufacturing renaissance for national power and security is clear: Without a strong manufacturing sector, the foundation for America's security is in jeopardy. No argument for this case is clearer than that of the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, which both lands as a rotorcraft and flies as a plane. This hybrid aircraft has revolutionized not just the U.S. Marine Corps, but the manufacturers who produce it.
The Marines are the only tiltrotor-enabled assault force in the world, allowing the service to achieve mission success by inserting forces with speed into areas over long range. The aircraft has led to a significant transformation of assault forces able to navigate a battlespace from both sea and land without facing the dangers presented by slow transit via traditional rotorcraft.
Last year, I flew multiple times on Ospreys as the Marines were exercising landing and exiting from areas of operation. The capability of the aircraft to arrive from different locations every time is just one of the safety factors made possible with tiltrotor aviation.
But all of this would not happen without the manufacturing prowess of the "hybrid" company behind the Osprey: Bell-Boeing. The two companies work in tandem to deliver Ospreys to the Marines and Air Force, which flies its own version of the aircraft. The success of the program is opening up export markets as well, with the Japanese being the first global customer.
The plane is built in Ridley Park, Penn., by Boeing and in Fort Worth and Amarillo, Texas, by Bell. The Boeing Osprey plant is co-located with the company's long-running Chinook helicopter line. The final assembly plant at Amarillo is the focal point of key parts and subassemblies produced at the other plants.
The cutting-edge manufacturing processes involved in the program are evident from a recent visit to the Ridley Park, Penn., plant. The plane is comprised of nearly 50 percent composites, a foundational element that for decades kept the Osprey more of an aspiration than a reality, as the materials technology caught up with the dream of building a hybrid plane. Moving from briefing charts to reality is a result not just of science but also of the maturation of manufacturing technologies.
Composite technology and the ability to manufacture important parts out of composite materials is a key reason for the commercial viability of the Osprey. Given that the composite raw materials are stored and shipped frozen, the process of producing parts is time-sensitive: The clock starts ticking from the time the materials begins to thaw, are cured, finished and moved to the assembly process. It is not easy to get the process right.
"We have a large freezer outside of the center to store bulk raw material received from the supply chain," said Tom Jablonski, head of the Composites Center of Excellence. The material moves to a smaller freezer inside the center and is issued to one of four automated raw material cutters where it is cut into "kits," then paired with the corresponding automated lay-up tool. "We have all sorts of bond assembly jigs in addition to molds, caul plates and other consumable tooling that aid in developing and maintaining the part size and shape," said Jablonski, whose background is in both civilian and military composites.
The plant's industrial engineering team controls order release -- the start of the manufacturing process. "These load decisions are based on tool availability, takt time of the manufacturing process and assembly flow," said Jablonski. "Right now, the V-22 assembly process is building at a pace that supports our customer funding and demand."
Over the past five years, large automation machines have been replaced by foreign-made commercial robotics with Boeing-developed components to facilitate the manufacturing process. This has reduced manhours in the manufacturing process, improved cost and reliability. Maintenance and machine downtime are down significantly. Large, heavy tools are no longer needed. The robot moves about the tool, reducing the wear and tear on the machine and hence cost.
"From a technology perspective, a lot of the early automated fiber placement technology was very specific, very rudimentary and not overly efficient," said Jablonski. Robotic systems allow the company to manufacture complex composite parts and assemblies.
The automated trim cell section of the composite center of excellence has several interesting machines. "A consideration for a composite fabricator when trimming a part is how to hold it still," said Jablonski. "How do you hold a very large part that you'd like to trim the periphery of? As part of the trim cell itself, we have a universal holding fixture with an elaborate electronic control system which determines the coordinates of the part in space and adjusts the height of several dozen 'pogos' to match the contour of the part. It applies suction to pull that part against the pogos, holding the part still so the machine can do its thing."
There is a single assembly line at Boeing's Philadelphia site where the MV-22 and CV-22 are built. The modifications for the CV-22 are done at the appropriate station in the line and with the workers who do those mods adjacent to that workstation in the production flow. "We keep looking for better ways of building the aircraft in the eyes of affordability," said Jim Curren, senior manager of operations. "In that process, robots are getting a lot of attention, more so now than ever. They've come a long way. We're three years into incorporating robots into our structures-build process." The machinery provides for high tolerance manufacturing.
Kristin Robertson, vice president of Boeing Tiltrotor Programs, said that with nearly 300 aircraft having been built, the manufacturing process has matured. "We credit process discipline as an enabler to support a stable configuration for the aircraft," she said. "We have implemented a number of lean manufacturing processes that drive repeatability, standardization and standard work, which have enhanced affordability. And we have implemented innovative ways to achieve seamless and repeatable production, such as using 3-D model-based definition that allows us to work on new configurations of the aircraft."
The opportunity for global sales is founded on the performance of the aircraft by the Marines and the Air Force. Nothing has more of an impact on foreign militaries considering purchasing the aircraft than combat success of an effective U.S. product. But for foreign sales to start materializing, the maturation of the V-22's supply chain needs to be matched by government and industrial investments.
The current system of support is falling short of meeting growing demand signals. In interviews I have conducted with those who maintain and operate the aircraft, it is clear that concern over supply shortfalls and uncertainties are unduly affecting operational demands. Because the demand signal is higher than DOD decision makers expected, the supply side has fallen short.
In the words of former USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation, Lt. Gen. George Trautman: "As a growing number of unprecedented new missions and operating locations are added to the V-22 community's repertoire and new international and domestic customers seek to obtain the Osprey, we must ensure the global supply chain evolves to keep pace with this incredible revolution in military technology." The recently announced sale of Ospreys to Japan provides an opportunity to put in motion a more global approach. "It would be important for the Japanese to ensure that they have significant material on their side of the export request for their parts depot," said former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne. "The investment in stock really pays off in terms of operational performance."
In short, the maturity of the Osprey's operational capabilities and of its manufacturing processes lay the foundation for global sales and shared capabilities with allies at the front line of dealing with challenges such as Chinese and Russian assertiveness.
-- Robbin Laird is an aerospace industry analyst.
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