Andel and Handling: How Top Guns Survive

May 8, 2012
Adaptability is key to longevity in any industry. Ask Tom Cruise.

It would have been great to interview Tom Cruise for our cover story featuring the F-35 jet fighter. After all, he and that aircraft have a lot in common. First, they’ll co-star in “Top Gun 2” together—26 years after the first "Top Gun" movie. Second, and more germane to this discussion, they’re both throwbacks to different eras.

Tom’s past 50 now and has acted with some of old Hollywood’s greats like Paul Newman, George C. Scott and Jack Nicholson.

The F-35 is a throwback to when jet fighters co-starred with pilots. It will be the last manned fighter jet produced in the U.S. Unmanned drones are the new state of the warring art.

Like Tom, the F-35 is a versatile actor. It has three flight variants: aside from taking off from a standard runway, it can takeoff from the short runway of an aircraft carrier or it can takeoff vertically from no runway at all. And talk about throwbacks, as mentioned in our cover story, the F-35’s manufacture is heavily influenced by Henry Ford and his concept of interchangeable parts. Even its production has automotive influences—including the AGVs used in the assembly of the center wing section.

The automotive industry has been using AGVs for decades, but it’s still a fairly fresh concept in the making of fighter jets. But during all that time in Detroit, AGV technology has come of age and is now considered a justifiable production option in aerospace. Its justification is more than cost.

Lockheed-Martin engineer Peter Neumeier told me that without AGVs they would have had to assign several people to move tooling from station to station manually. In its newer but smaller Marietta, Ga., plant, that would have taken longer and it wouldn’t have been safe. In fact with the likely injuries and the time required to move the tooling, they would never meet their jet-a-day production quota.

“In this case the aerospace industry has benefited from the experience of the automotive industry because the automotive industry, due to its high production rates, has pushed AGV technology to the point that allows us to have this solution now,” Neumeier says.

In fact Lockheed’s competitor, Brown Aerospace, took the technology for a different spin on its jet production line. While, like Lockheed, Brown wanted the precise positioning AGVs could offer, unlike Lockheed, Brown mounted its tooling to the AGVs which then move to each station and then lock into the floor. Although the tool is attached to the AGV they believe they can get the accuracy they need to achieve the exact tolerances that Lockheed achieves with stationary tooling.

In both cases, AGVs are instrumental in achieving assembly precision. And just as the automotive industry helped influence the AGV technology applied in aerospace, what’s happening with jet assembly is influencing other AGV applications. Flexibility is the key. While the AGVs discussed in this story are fairly specialized, they can do several things. This is necessary for a decent ROI. Fori calls its AGVs “MTAVs,” or Multi Task Autonomous Vehicles, and even its VP of sales, Paul Meloche, admits if you build an AGV that only handles one task you may not get your payback—especially in manufacturing environments with lower production rates.

“We like to separate the part and the tooling from the AGV so maybe one or two can handle parts in multiple moves,” he says. “Ask yourself, what is your manufacturing process and how can this large investment do more than just a single task? That’s how you get your payback.”

So like Tom Cruise, AGVs have come a long way in the last few decades and both have adapted to industry’s needs for their services. That’s a good lesson for all of us 50-somethings to remember when faced with impossible missions.

Follow me on Twitter @TomAndel.