AIR FORCE PLANT 42, PALMDALE, Calif. — Northrop Grumman is eyeing extra space at its F-35 center fuselage facility as a potential production line for a new aircraft — whatever that may be.
The location — part of a Palmdale, California, government-owned contractor operated facility known as Air Force Plant 42 — is currently used to produce the center fuselage for the F-35 joint strike fighter. But the production line, part of Northrop's campus at the location, is massive, with around 450,000 square feet of space for production given over to the F-35 and another 1 million square feet currently unused.
That unused space would be ripe for a top-end, tech-savvy production line, something Tom Vice, Northrop's president of aerospace systems, has clearly been thinking about.
"This site has very unique capabilities and capacities," Vice told reporters Wednesday. However, he declined to talk about "any future plans for any new Air Force programs."
Reading between the lines, however, it's not hard becomes easy to guess what Vice would like to see produced here. The facilities were the birthing place of the B-2 stealth bomber, and sustainment work on the Spirit fleet occurs at hangars scattered around the base.
Northrop, of course, is competing against with the team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the contract right to produce the service's new long range strike-bomber (LRS-B), and while Vice refused to make a direct link between the two programs, reporters touring the facility were shown a slideshow that included pictures of the B-2 production line at its height.
Throughout the two-day trip, which was arranged and paid for by Northrop, Vice made it clear he believes his company's experience with the B-2 is a major part of its pitch for the next-generation system.
Another option for Northrop in the facility could be its offering for the Air Force's T-X program, which will deliver a next-generation trainer aircraft. Northrop is teamed with BAE Systems, L-3 and Rolls-Royce on an offering of the Hawk Advanced Jet Training System, based on the BAE Hawk design used by the UK, Canada and Australia.
Asked directly whether Northrop wanted to build T-X here, Vice said the company has not made a decision on where the Hawks would be built if the company were to win the competition. But again, there are signs it would make sense for the company.
Notably, Northrop signed an agreement in 2012 with KUKA Systems Corp., a Detroit-based company, to design the assembly line for its T-X program. KUKA designed the F-35 line co-located at the same facility.
That F-35 line was named 2013 "Assembly Plant of the Year" by Assembly Magazine, in part due to the innovative design by KUKA. That design, which features automated drilling and movable platforms to shift parts from station to station, has delivered 168 center fuselages, "all of them on time," said Hank Reed, Northrop's director of business development for the F-35 program.
In September, the line will shift from its current rate of one center fuselage produced every four days to one production unit completed every three days. Reed said that if the F-35 production curve plays out as the Pentagon expects, it could shift up to one production every two days sometime in late 2017 or early 2018.
When asked whether a similar setup would make sense for other programs, Andy Reynolds, vice president of manufacturing and site manager of the Palmdale facilities, said it "could be," but it would depend on the quantities being produced, as lower quantities could negate the capital investment needed in such a production line.
Whether the LRS-B, at 80-100 copies, is enough airplanes quantity is unclear; the T-X program, which is aiming for 350 production models, almost certainly would.