Construction of the F-35 Lightning II prototypes had hit a snag. Small-statured workers were having to squeeze into inlet ducts to drill hundreds of holes by hand to prepare ducts for attachment to the airframe. Not only was the inside-out drilling process unsustainable for workers, but in ultra-high-performance aircraft like the F-35, holes must be extremely consistent and precise.
Northrop Grumman, a principle member of the F-35 industry team, took the challenge to the automotive sector, and in 2007, Michigan-based Variation Reduction Solutions, Inc. (VRSI) won a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to find solutions. Three short years later, Northrop Grumman integrated the game-changing Inlet Duct Robotic Drilling (IDRD) cell into their F-35 Integrated Assembly Line, calling it the “crown jewel” of their production line.
The VRSI-led IDRD technology is just one of many successful innovations enabled by the US Air Force’s SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.
Some 360 different types of fasteners are used in F-35 construction to secure one surface to another—with thousands of holes waiting to be filled by the right fastener on every airframe. Traditionally, mechanics would mark the required fastener type on the fuselage with masking tape or a felt pen.
To streamline the process, Michigan-based Variation Reduction Solutions Inc. (VRSI) led development of the cutting-edge Fastener Insertion Live Link System, or FILLS. With FILLS, an optical projection system illuminates information and instructions directly on the airframe, and a computer interface creates the parts order. This significantly improves efficiency and accuracy, and creates a digital thread from production through repair and overhaul.
The FILLS system will save many millions of dollars for the F-35 and has also been transitioned into numerous other programs—a great example of the many successful innovations enabled by the US Air Force’s SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Program.
Lighter materials, such as carbon fiber composites, are the wave of the future in aerospace, automotive, and medical device manufacturing. However, problems with joining and bonding composites have presented obstacles to their use.
To solve this problem, the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program provided funding to BTG Labs of St. Bernard, OH, to develop technology to evaluate the surface of a composite material to determine if it has been prepared properly so that adhesives will stick and the bond between the surfaces will last. The technology advance resulted in a handheld tool that can rapidly analyze a surface using a drop of water and a camera. With the information the Surface Analyst provides, manufacturers will be able to use new materials and design concepts to develop the next generation of composite products.
BTG Labs’ Surface Analyst is just one of many successful innovations enabled by the US Air Force’s SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. For more information, visit afsbirsttr.com.