WASHINGTON — Differences in pace and production requirements have caused many manufacturers to struggle to straddle defense and commercial markets, opting to instead “stay in their lane,” so to speak. But that’s changing, as the Pentagon embraces some of the commercial market’s sensibilities.
The Department of Defense is “leaning more heavily on the expanded notion of the industrial base … drawing from the broader manufacturing industrial strength of the United States and frankly partner countries too,” said Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners.
By the same token, companies are recognizing the potential to get a foot in the door. Right now, about 3-5 percent of aerostructures company Spirit AeroSystem’s total revenue comes from defense, for example. That’s a relatively small slice. But the target is 15-20 percent, according to Spirit executives. The hope is that a couple key programs currently within its portfolio could serve as models for future opportunities, particularly as the Pentagon looks to emulate what’s happening in commercial manufacturing.
In the commercial world, “you just don’t have a lot of time between design and production,” said Duane Hawkins, senior vice president of Boeing programs, business regional jets, and defense programs at Spirit. “You have to be sure what you design will make you competitive. We use that practice on the commercial side on defense programs.”
Proof through prototypes
While not necessarily standard, the Pentagon is more and more often relying on prototypes for proof of concept – replacing at least some of the paper exercise associated with a traditional procurement with the ability to kick the tires, so to speak.
“Are we going to do rapid prototyping on nuclear submarines? No. But UAVs is a classic case in point,” where DoD has been more willing to bring commercial alternatives to bear for the services, Callan said.
The Pentagon notes three areas where prototyping is primarily used in acquisition. First is proof of principle – that is, demonstrating the feasibility of an integrated capability or the ability to overcome specific technical risks, and to develop detailed cost data. Second is fieldability – or the ability to demonstrate performance in the operational environment, for example. And third is pre-engineering and manufacturing development – to demonstrate such things as military utility, fabrication processes and performance, and to define form, fit and function.
That latter scenario drove the rapid prototyping component of the Army’s Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator – which will help inform the service’s requirements for a Future Vertical Lift program. Spirit designed and built the prototype for the fuselage of Bell Helicopter’s V-280 Valor tilt rotor in less than 22 months — a month ahead of schedule.
Bell is competing against a team of Sikorsky and Boeing, which will be offering up the SB-1 Defiant helicopter.
“Prototyping is not done well in defense now. It’s just a different way of thinking,” Hawkins said. “Clearly in [commercial] aerospace we have a lot of quality requirements we need to follow, just like in defense. But we’re able to balance that with speed and low-cost design and manufacturing approaches. In many cases we actually manufacture the prototypes on the production equipment we’d ultimately end up using. We find that more efficient. When we’re ready to go into production, we’re already there, we know what machine we’ll make this on, we’ve done the tooling. You’re starting all over again.”
Militarization of commercial systems is not a new tactic for defense services, but it’s increasingly appealing as DoD seeks ways to trim costs and companies try to leverage existing production lines.
“Everybody is looking at all the options at various price points to bring capability forward,” Dave Melcher, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, told Defense News during the Paris Air Show in June. “Militarizing a particular aircraft that may not have been originally intended for that can be the answer, compared to something much more expensive they can’t afford.”
“Every one of our services have looked at options that were maybe more expedient, some during wartime,” Melcher added. “How do we get capability out there? Maybe it’s a low-cost solution but more plentiful.”
The true advantage of such tactics is of course realized on the production line, both through synergy in processes combined with volume. Spirit AeroSystems delivers about 47 fuselages for the Boeing 737 airliner every month; it utilizes that same production line to produce the fuselages of the P-8A Poseidon for the U.S. Navy, which don’t have any windows and requires modification to the bottom of the aircraft to meet defense requirements.
“We run our production on this six-lane freeway,” Hawkins said. “We run the P-8s in one lane, then we divert them and do what we need to do, then bring it back. For most of the time our P-8 fuselage is running on the commercial line and getting the benefit of building 47 a month, over 600 a year.”
The company does the same for the forward fuselage section of the KC-46, a version of the Boeing 767. The volume is not as high, but the concept is the same.
Callan also pointed to Textron Scorpion as a good case in point of an aircraft with commercial heritage, filling a potential defense hole. “It came out of Cessna, was primarily developed with a commercial mindset, from a business unit that is commercial oriented,” but is now among the aircraft taking part in the U.S. Air Force’s light-attack aircraft experiment, which will help the Air Force decide whether to start an OA-X program of record.
Quite simply, defense is gradually understanding the benefit of adopting the key mantra that drives processes in commercial manufacturing:
“On the commercial side of the business there’s an intense focus on designing for produceability,” Hawkins noted, “It’s a matter of survival.”
Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.