The Italian F-35 FACO: A Key Asset in the Global F-35 Support System


2012-12-05 We have written often about allies and their role in the F-35 program.  We have also written about the unique aspects of the impact of the F-35 as a fleet of aircraft.  And we have brought the two together in a discussion of evolving Pacific strategy and the potential role of F-35 support hubs in the execution of a US and allied 21st century Pacific strategy.

We have also written about the key role which the Italians play in European , Mediterranean and Middle East security policies.  We have underscored the role, which the F-35 will play on their new carriers, as well as the role of the F-35As for the Italian AF in their role in the region.

Another key aspect of Italy’s approach to the F-35 is not simply buying it but producing key parts for the plane as well as building a final assembly and checkout facility in Italy.

And with intelligent US and allied policies, this FACO could provide a significant hub for repair and maintenance of the aircraft for the US and allied users of the aircraft.

If the United States fully grasps the impact of the F-35 program, DOD will not simply replicate what the Italians have already built but rely on the facility and become significant users of the FACO as an MCO facility.

After our visit to Yuma and MAWTS we spent some time at the F-35 plant to view the various F-35Bs in train for Yuma.  And during the visit, we sat down with two key Lockheed officials involved in working with the Italians to get an update on the FACO.  Given the importance of this Italian investment and development, to our eyes there has been very little focus outside of Italy on this development.

This meeting provided us with an opportunity to correct this deficit.

We sat down with Brian White and Kris Yowell to discuss the FACO and its significance.  Brian White is a relative newcomer to the program but with significant background in international business with Lockheed Martin.  He has been the Lockheed official responsible for the execution of the contract for the FACO from the Lockheed side.  Yowell has been with Lockheed since 1986 and the JSF program since the start of SDD production. He has worked within production and global supply chain within the program and has worked with the Italians for the past four years living in Italy for 3.  The two brought significant international and production experience to the working relationship with the Italians.

SLD: Could you tell us about the basic contract and approach to building the FACO in Italy?

White: The contract is called a 548 commercial capability standup contract for the FACO in Italy.  And it’s in Cameri.

The contract is between the Italian MOD and a joint venture made up of Alenia Aermacchi and Lockheed Martin. Alenia fulfills the role of “Mandataria” or principal agent and Lockheed is the “Mandante”. There’s a defined scope of both parties.

Our piece of the contract is essentially to extend the Fort Worth line to Cameri.

Our task is to take what we do here and get it done over there in terms of manufacturing equipment and processes including tooling, production aids, test equipment, training personnel; on the job training, as well as providing technical assistance by deploying personnel to Italy combined with dedicated support in Fort Worth.

The Italian facility can both final assemble and provide a basis for opening a maintenance facility or hub for the F-35. It is sized and equipped to achieve a full rate of 24 aircraft /year within 3 years (2016) to accommodate ITALY + NETHERLANDS deliveries. Credit Photo: Lockheed Martin 

There’s an IT interface also to ensure that the Italian FACO has access to the most up to date manufacturing documentation including drawings and 3D models. In all there’s about 18 different areas, or Contract Lots, that we provide support.

The delineation of scope is simply put: Alenia builds the buildings and then we fill them.

In essence, the contract provides for us to provide an extension of the production approach and processes from Fort Worth to Cameri.

SLD: So what is the status of fulfilling the contract, and standing up the FACO?

White: I’d say from our perspective, we are on the cusp of hitting the ground running.  We’ve done a lot of prep work.  The contract itself is about almost halfway executed.  And that’s essentially buying tools and moving them over there.  We have hired people and moved them over there.

We have done the setting up, planning, documentation, technology transfer, and getting that line just about ready to produce jets.

We start from what we call J860, which is the first mate.  That’s where we put together the wings, center, the forward fuselage, the aft, and it starts to look like a plane.

So, we take these major components and start putting them together in this first very critical step that’s going to happen at the facility.

That’s scheduled to happen in July of next year.  The line is just about ready to support that. We’re building the line machinery that has to hold these components while they get joined together and wired up.

SLD: Are these for both As and Bs?

White: Eventually yes, but the initial jets are the As.  The plant was sized for 24 a year, including the Dutch aircraft.  So, planning is underway for that.  However, there is no official agreement in place yet between the Dutch and the Italians.

SLD: And obviously such a facility could perform a key role for MCO in Europe and the region?

White:  It clearly could.  They are making a very strong play to be MRO go-to for that region.  Given their investment, what they’re doing with the capability standup, it’s our position that that’s a logical choice.

However, that work has to be contracted, awarded and competed.

But they are making a very, very strong case for that work to be put there in the future.

SLD: This is a significant Italian investment, which then could have significance beyond Italy itself?

White: They understand the investment they’re making and they are master strategists in understanding the long-term ramifications.  For them, it’s not about buying a jet or being able to produce a jet, it’s about helping their economy, creating jobs, creating an infrastructure in-country that is part of a global enterprise that has things coming in to Italy.

It extends far beyond just the Italian F-35 jets that they intend to buy, it’s their partners that are suppliers on the F-35 program.  It’s their wing-line that supports not only Italian jets, but also all the partner countries.

And they are positioning themselves; again, to be the MRO, a new resource in country and they’re very forward-thinking in setting up that infrastructure now far ahead of there being any ability to definitively say yes, you have that work.

SLD: The FACO is significant, but Italy is also building key parts for the plane as well.

Yowell: They are.  The Italians have the opportunity build up to 800+ wings for the JSF program.  They are currently building the WCT (Wing Carry Through) components for the wing and have already delivered three sets supporting USAF F-35s in LRIP 5.   They have started production of a Full Wing as well as continued production of WCT in LRIP 6 and 7. They are also adding the build of Outer Wing Box components in LRIP 6 and 7 that will support both USAF and Italian full wings.

SLD: I would assume that Alenia’s competence in composite wing structures evident in the 787 program has been an important capability available for the F-35 as well?

Yowell: It has.  The Italians have made a significant investment in composite technologies and training a workforce to work in this area. The JSF uses some of the most advanced composite manufacturing techniques and the Italians are well positioned to support the programs long term requirements in this area.

SLD: In order to do this – to extend a final assembly line to Italy – there has to be significant maturity in production processes and replicability of codes and production technologies doesn’t there?

Yowell: Indeed there does.  We all have to remember that this is the first jet that’s been fully modeled and designed in a 3D environment; configuration of the “digital thread” is maintained in a world class PDM (Product Data Management) system.   First, older platforms were typically 2D drawing based and “paper” driven, it was challenging to consistently produce that and communicate/integrate the entire supply chain.

The advancements in 3D modeling and data management used on the JSF allow for seamless integration within the global supply chain and produce predictable/repeatable manufacture processes. The result is F-35 assembly production sites and suppliers are demonstrating higher quality during early manufacturing, and the learning curves have come down much faster than legacy platforms.

SLD: Obviously the involvement in the wing work is an important step in learning the proceses, which will then be used in the FACO. Could you discuss the approach?

Yowell: The Italian strategy that is being executed is to start on component manufacturing and lead into full FACO capability.    So, they’re building F-35 subcomponents, wing carry throughs, outer wing boxes and eventually a full wing, the first full wing, is being built in support of LRIP 7and was started earlier this month at the newly constructed Wing facility in Cameri Italy.  This wing will be delivered to Lockheed and integrated into the Fort Worth FACO production line.

So to do that, we had to jointly develop a transition/implementation strategy that built upon the existing experience and knowledge base in Italy.  Lockheed deployed a technical assistance team to provide guidance and communicate lessons learned in an effort to reduce risk and accelerate the learning curve in building a 5th generation fighter.

The Italians are maturing an existing skilled workforce pulled from domestic A/C programs as well training a new generation of workers recruited from trade schools and integrating them both into the JSF manufacturing processes.   The results thus far have met and exceeded, in some areas Lockheed’s expectations; the Italians are mastering the production approach and process.

SLD: Obviously, the Italian commitment is clear and significant.  How would you describe the Italian approach and level of commitment to the program?

Yowell: If we look back at legacy programs, which were less complex production programs, Lockheed had several co-producers that demonstrated significant investment and commitment to those programs; many of them are involved on the JSF program today.

This is a similar level of commitment by the Italians but to a much more complex production process that requires much larger investments in capital equipment and facilities to be well positioned for future opportunities.

It is not just a commitment financially; it is in terms of personnel, training and manufacturing capabilities.  The Italians have made significant, long-term commitments to the JSF program.

They accepted the challenge; more importantly they acknowledge it as a challenge.  And are doing everything they can to lean forward as a country, both industry and government, to make both Italy and more importantly the JSF program successful.

SLD: Because the F-35 is a global program, what might be the impact of the Italian effort on others?

White: Japan is looking seriously at the Italian model and the possibility of setting up a FACO in Japan.  They have already visited Italy to look at the approach and to think about a similar site in Japan.

See also the following with regard to the overall F-35 approach: