The U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) has developed a new manufacturing process to build fighter aircraft canopies.
The new technique will be used on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) in 2014 by GKN Aerospace Transparency Systems and could cut the cost of the total aircraft procurement by $125 million over the production run of about 3,000 planned aircraft.
“We took an intensive, manual, time-consuming process and improved it to be more precise and efficient,” Neil Graf, program officer for the ONR’s Manufacturing Technology program (ManTech), said in a statement. “That’s what the Navy’s ManTech program does: We look at ways to reduce manufacturing costs on aircraft, ships and submarines to save the taxpayer money.”
The current manufacturing process for a canopy is difficult due to its shape and composition and can take up to six days. However, ONR’s new automated thermoforming process reduces that to less than four days. According to the Navy, the new automated process will require fewer tools and help avoid costs when aircraft require replacement canopies.
Using the current manufacturing process, technicians have to load preformed acrylic shells into a forming tool and bake it in an autoclave for up to six days. Workers must regularly enter the giant industrial-sized oven to observe the canopy’s progress and manually adjust positioning clamps to control the forming process. The manufacturing process must be carried out with absolute precision to build an acceptable canopy.
By contrast, the new method employs a control system that uses four cameras to monitor the inside of the autoclave to calculate the rate at which the canopy shape is forming.
“The clamps then automatically adjust to ensure the shape remains uniform throughout the process to meet the F-35’s stringent performance requirements,” according to an ONR release.
Development of the new automated thermoforming process was led by ONR ManTech, but involved experts from the F-35 Joint Program Office, Naval Air Systems Command, GKN Aerospace Transparency Systems and Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory.