Podcast: Inside A New Skunk Works Factory

A newly opened factory on the Skunk Works complex heralds a new era and a return to series manufacturing by Lockheed Martin's 78-year-old advanced development programs business unit. Aviation Week Defense Editor Steve Trimble attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Aug. 10. He talks with fellow editor Guy Norris about what he saw and what it means for the next wave of military aircraft production.

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Rush transcript:

Guy Norris:

Hello and welcome to this edition of Aviation Week's Check 6 Podcast. I'm Guy Norris, and with me today is our defense editor, Steve Trimble, who was recently lucky enough to visit the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale, California. Not only did he visit it, he actually got to go inside part of it, a new part, which he's going to tell us about today. It's a rare moment for somebody outside of the cloistered world of the inside defense world to actually get inside that building. But Steve, obviously Skunk Works is in the process of essentially reinventing itself as it looks to survive and prosper in these strange days, by moving really from pristine unique prototypes and demonstrators to a world where it's actually going to enter a production phase. Really, in a way, going back to its roots. And part of this is essentially a digital transformation as a long journey that a lot of aerospace companies are all on around the world. But could you explain to everybody why this is a bit different, why Lockheed's approach is different, and tell us a little bit more about the digital transformation that they're on?

Steve Trimble:

Yeah. So, it's kind of a two-part transformation that they showed us in actually quite some detail, in quite elaborate detail, during this tour on August 10th at site 10 of plant 42, also known as the Skunk Works in Palmdale. And the two parts to it, one is just on the digital side and is a new approach to digital engineering and digital manufacturing. And the second is this physical instantiation of that with infrastructure in the form of a new factory, a huge new factory that they've built and erected on the Skunk Works campus there in Palmdale. And so we got to see both sides of that, basically the step-by-step series of sub-projects, where they proved out this digital manufacturing approach which they are now going to apply to projects that they're actually going to start building in this new factory in what they call building 648 on the campus. So, that was the point of the visit and the tour.

Guy Norris:

Right. Just to set the scene a little, now we know that the Skunk Works really, in its modern era, occupies what most people know in Palmdale on that corner of plant 42. There's mainly two large hangar buildings that were built, the STAR factory in the desert that was built for the L-1011 program back in the late '60s. So, where in relation to those huge hangers is the new facility?

Steve Trimble:

Right. So, there's building 601, which is the building that we commonly associate with the Skunk Works since it moved to Palmdale from Burbank in the late 1980s to occupy that L-1011 building. And so as you're looking straight at L-1011 from the entrance of the Skunk Works, I don't know if this helps anybody, it's on the right and behind the front of that building, this new factory building, 648. Now, if you go to Google Maps and look up Palmdale and look at the Lockheed Martin campus on Google Maps, you're not going to see it. It's still just a dirt strip. And that's because all the images of plant 42 have been baselined, I think to 2016, and there hasn't been an update since then. So, there's a huge dirt patch which is now a factory on that property.

Guy Norris:

Right. Now, you got to see inside of, obviously, at least part of this building, and it was pretty strange by all accounts. You, in earlier discussions about this, you've said, "It's similar to going inside of an Ikea." Like an Ikea showroom, almost.

Steve Trimble:

Yeah. In many more ways than one. In fact there was a whole discussion about how they want to replicate the Ikea style assembly process in the factory, but for advanced and high-performance aircraft, not wobbly furniture, which I'm actually using right now on my desk.

Guy Norris:

Right. And me having just spent this last weekend building entire bookshelves, I understand completely where you're coming from.

Steve Trimble:

But the lobby itself, as you go into the lobby of this building, it's very striking because I mean, we go into aerospace factories all the time. They tend to be pretty drab, functional type lobbies, not something to try to impress or wow you or anything with their architectural vision. But in this case, I mean, you're entering through this shard of glass that's supposed to evoke one of the five legs of a star, which is Lockheed's big corporate symbol is the star. So, that's by itself unusual, and then you open the door and you go into the lobby and you enter this black lacquer type space with streaks of silvery shiny things on the ceiling. And then off to the left is the cafeteria. And people listening to this podcast probably have seen an aerospace factory cafeteria for the machinists and for the engineers that are working there. And it's usually not a classy type of space. I mean, it's not unclean or anything, but it's very functional.

Steve Trimble:

This is all... I mean, it wouldn't look out of place in a swanky restaurant in Stockholm or a boutique hotel breakfast bar in Manhattan or something. I mean, it's all white with very modernist flourishes and touches and the lighting fixtures are all very modern and it feels like you should be hearing house music pumping through the lobby. I mean, it feels like that should be happening. And in fact, because this was a special event, it was a ribbon cutting with dignitaries and special visitors, as we were walking through the lobby into the factory, they were playing Levitating by Dua Lipa. It seemed very appropriate for the setting, which I never would have associated with an aerospace factory before. So, not that the lobby design is all that important to the overall thrust of the story, but it is striking as you walk into it.

Guy Norris:

Right. And of course, being a student of history as you are and the Skunk Works in particular, I know you've delved into the history of that a lot. And you can't imagine a greater contrast, can you, between the scruffy backlot of Burbank airport in the 1940s to this transformation? It seems remarkable.

Steve Trimble:

Well, in fact, I mean Skunk Works was originally named because of the smell. Well, that's one theory of it. But I mean, there was a meat processing plant not too far from where they had the circus tent erected on the Burbank campus for the Skunk Works in 1943, and that smell is how the Skunk Works got its name. At least that's one of the theories anyway. But even if it isn't true, there was definitely a smell and they know that it did smell in that building. But I mean, interestingly, I mean, Kelly Johnson was very suspicious of that kind of thing. He really didn't like the idea. Kelly Johnson, the founder of Skunk Works, always made it a point not to emphasize flashy buildings and expensive type architecture. It was always supposed to be very functional and to show the customer that you're not spending money on things you shouldn't be spending money on. Not to say that Lockheed's got the wrong idea these days, but it is a contrast with how Skunk Works used to do things.

Guy Norris:

Absolutely. And I think that's a general thing across the US aerospace defense industry. They've always made a point of never showing the customer that their money is being misspent on trivial things like great decor and fancy atriums. However, we digress. One of the things that I know you were impressed about the visit was seeing the work that they've been doing as part of their journey, that by essentially using or borrowing part of the work that they'd been working with NASA on, on the low boom quiet supersonic technology aircraft, the X-59, could you describe a little bit about what that involves and what you saw?

Steve Trimble:

Yeah. So, I mean, that goes to the first part of the tour. The second part of the tour was the new factory. The first part of the tour was their StarDrive process and how they've transitioned StarDrive from basically a experimental thing into an actual engineering process that they're using for whatever is going to be built in that factory, which is going to be all classified. And so what they did is they took us into building 601. They actually took us through the tunnels, which I've never been in before. I've been in 601 before but never through the tunnel, which they joked was where they kept the aliens and stuff.

Guy Norris:

Fantastic.

Steve Trimble:

Yeah. So, then we go into the big area where everything's sectioned off, you can only see certain things. And one of the things they showed us was the X-59, which is the NASA quiet supersonic demonstrator that's being built by the Skunk Works. Totally unclassified so it was something that they could show us. So, in the process of coming up with this new manufacturing approach, which they call StarDrive, they started with a project named Sirius, which is a reference back to one of the original single engine  monoplanes from the 1920s, like Orion and Sirius that Lockheed, actually, that Jack Northrop designed when he was still working for Lockheed in the '20s. Anyway, Sirius was creating a model-based systems engineering digital model for a notional future advanced UAS type concept where they could enable this approach to digital manufacturing by creating this very accurate, very detailed digital model of a design.

Steve Trimble:

So, it's not on paper and it can be shared with your suppliers. It can also be shared with the machines that your suppliers use. It can be shared with your environmental control systems and all these things that go into creating structures that can fit together, that even if they're built thousands of miles or hundreds of miles apart, when they come into the factory in Palmdale, their tolerances line up to the thousandths of an inch type tolerance, which is necessary especially for stealthy type aircraft and high-performance aircraft. So, that started with Sirius was just building the model. And they moved on to that to Project CHARLIE, where they started with a metallic structure. And this was just within Skunk Works. It was just a generic metallic structure, like a wing, with substructures that were mated together. At first, they just did metallics and then they moved to composites.

Steve Trimble:

Metallics had been done in industry before through digital manufacturing and deterministic assembly, but they considered doing this with composite materials to be a step beyond that, given the differences in temperature controls and lay up tolerances that are necessary for a composite system, which proved out that it worked. And then they moved on to Project Polaris, which is where they took the section of the X-59, a section of it, of the fuselage, and they gave half of that section to Spirit AeroSystems. Sorry. And I should say they didn't touch the X-59. The X-59, they kept that going, right? But they took the design for this section and they gave half of it to Spirit AeroSystems, which participated in this project, and they took the other half. So, this was to basically prove that a supplier, which is necessary for any large-scale advanced aircraft manufacturing project, that a major supplier could develop the substructure at the same tolerances and the same quality as the OEM could. And then they brought that together and they were able to mate it, they said within minutes, with no shims, no corrective type applications and post-processing. Yeah.

Guy Norris:

Of course the journey, as it were, with all of these these elements to it comes together in one big picture, which really is part of the demonstrate of the project Speed Racer, which you talked about. Could you tell us a little more about that as a demonstrator? What it for and what does it actually does? Because I think it really does more than simply prove this whole process, doesn't it?

Steve Trimble:

Yes.

Guy Norris:

It's like the sum of the parts kind of thing.

Steve Trimble:

Yeah. Speed Racer's really interesting because our understanding of what it is has actually evolved quite a bit since it was first unveiled almost a year ago last September by the Skunk Works. And so, what it is, it started out as a demonstrator, as a flying air vehicle demonstrator for the new StarDrive process. And so it was going to demonstrate that you can take this digital model that they created in Project Sirius with the robotics and the automation and the mating processes that they proved out with project CHARLIE and project Polaris, and put it all together in a flying vehicle. It's not an aircraft in the traditional sense. It's more like a missile. That could be built at scale very quickly, very affordably. And so that was what Speed Racer was. Since then, we've learned that there is an operational customer for a follow-on version of that flight demonstrator. And that part of it, you start getting into more classified territory. We do know the AFRL is interested in Speed Racer.

Steve Trimble:

They've published an agenda of a classified event they were holding where Speed Racer was one of the topics that was on the unclassified agenda. So, we know that there is customer... The AFRL is interested in this, which means the big Air Force has some interest in it. It could function as a decoy. It could function as a cruise missile. It could function as an expendable ISR asset or EW type system. And similar in the way to the Miniature Air Launched Decoy is today, but you would expect it to do that, but at a much more affordable rate. In fact, the Speed Racer acronym includes the term radically affordable, which is sort of, I think, a reference to that. And it would also probably bring in some of the collaboration type and swarming type behaviors that AFRL has been experimenting with through the Gray Wolf and Golden Horde programs, applying that to the Speed Racer. Yeah. And we expect that to go into production in building 648. At least I expect it to go into production in 648 as one of the classified follow-on projects.

Guy Norris:

Right. And of course this classified world that you've mentioned, that really it will be the future of this facility. I mean, obviously Speed Racer, follow-on, whatever that turns out to be, like emulating fifth or sixth gen, whatever it's going to be. But there are other programs, of course. Now, we can only speculate, of course, as to what these will be, but now let's just quickly go through a list of what Skunk Works is already well known to be involved in and looking at. And we can look at Next Generation Air Dominance. There's a follow-on unmanned air system. And of course there's hypersonics, which you and I have written and talked about a lot in recent years. So, what's next for the Skunk Works and how will all this be applied?

Steve Trimble:

So, it's all those things, but really, I mean, the fundamental reason for the fact that we're seeing this and the fact that Lockheed is trying to be so open about it is they're trying to communicate with NGAD, the Next Generation Air Dominance program up for grabs. A future vertical lift is up for grabs and some hypersonic, especially air breathing type programs are up for grabs that are coming down the line. They need to demonstrate that they can do these very high performance, very advanced type aerospace products without the kind of cost and time that it's taken for similar type projects over the last 30 years or so, or 40 years, even. Really, since the 1980s. Where you've had, any time you've tried to do a new fighter or anything really sophisticated, it's taken decades to get it off a sheet of paper and into an operational system that has been fully proved out and got all the bugs worked out of it, or at least most of them. They need to shorten that to, if not months, then a few years. 5, 6, 7, 8 years maybe.

Steve Trimble:

And to do that, they have to completely change the way they're doing it. Boeing is already out front on this, and they've been showing what they can do with the T-7A. Now, they're seven months or something, I think nine months behind schedule right now with the T-7A, which they've attributed mainly to COVID impacts on their international suppliers, especially Saab. But Lockheed and Northrop, I'm sure are also in that game as well. They may not be able to illustrate what they're doing because T-7A is an unclassified program, where Northrop has B-21. Perhaps they're using something similar to that on B-21. We don't know. And Lockheed may have some other things going on as well, but this is their first chance to really show what they've got with these big contracts up for grabs.

Steve Trimble:

And Next Generation Air Dominance would be obviously a very obvious target, as well as any future ISR type aircraft. If you go inside that hanger, it's 440 feet long and it's 290 feet wide, but it's divided down the middle into two bays with these I-beams down in the middle. So, you can't use it as one single bay. And each bay is 145 feet wide. So, that means you can get a good sized tactical aircraft in there. You can get a U2, that entire wingspan, into that. You can get 737 into that. But you can't get a bomber probably into that space. But it opens up a lot. I mean, whether it's going to be scram jet powered, cruise missiles, or anything related to Next Generation Air Dominance, future ISR aircraft, that's the kind of thing that they would be able to put into that facility and use digital engineering practices.

Guy Norris:

Right. Well, of course, that is interesting, isn't it? When you think about how, obviously in the big picture, Boeing has been able to really build a lot on a lot of these digital practices that have been honed and developed through their commercial work over the years, because cost has been an absolute driver and continues to be in that side of the business too, whereas Lockheed and Northrop, neither have had the benefit really of that deep background to be able to take from. However, they've exactly got even more crucial cost questions now to solve and obviously this is the way to do it. So...

Steve Trimble:

Even though they don't have that commercial experience of Boeing, they can share common suppliers. So, for example, we know Spirit AeroSystems is involved in the B-21 program. Spirit AeroSystems is by far Boeing's largest commercial supplier. In fact, it used to be part of Boeing, as you well know, and they have been leaders and pioneers and deterministic assembly and that process for 15 years or so, and even ahead of Boeing on that, on the commercial side. So, they are doing that. But the ultimate goal here is to get to that automotive style, highly automated, highly modularized type approach to assembly, yet without that kind of volume and on a very finely crafted, very complex shapes that you don't really see in automotive, with very complex materials that you don't see, and very expensive materials.

Steve Trimble:

And trying to put that together is the new holy grail of aerospace and defense manufacturing. And if you can crack it, as Boeing thinks that they have on the T-7A, it opens up this whole idea that we don't have to wait 20 years for the next six generation fighter. We don't have to wait however long it takes for the next ISR aircraft or KC-Z, the advanced air refueling programming for the mid 2030s, that these kinds of things can be done much faster and much more affordably if you can get the manufacturing and the design set up to support turning it around much faster without this huge breakdown.

Guy Norris:

Yeah. Well, I was going to say, just looking at the whole trend towards trying to bring in the cost benefits of commoditizing type manufacturing like this with the digital thread and... So, they've been at it a long time. I know collectively, even down to the room temperature composites and the large scale manufacturing capabilities for that, there's so many elements that they've be working on for decades in some cases, that now this maybe is the showroom of the future where you do see all these things coming together finally. So, yeah. Terrific stuff. I know we could talk a lot about this. There's more to come, I'm sure, as we get a chance. So, Steve, thanks again for your insight into that. And again, jealous. It's been a while since I got inside the Skunk Works, so envious of you for that. So, I guess that's all we've got time for today. Obviously, don't miss a single episode. Please subscribe to Aviation Week's Check 6 Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify. So, it's good-bye for now from Steve and I, and thanks for listening.

 

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, based in Colorado Springs. Before joining Aviation Week in 2007, Guy was with Flight International, first as technical editor based in the U.K. and most recently as U.S. West Coast editor. Before joining Flight, he was London correspondent for Interavia, part of Jane's Information Group.

Comments

1 Comment
These guys need a spelling lesson.