Over the years, we’ve mentioned Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works Advanced Development Programs (ADP), formerly called Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, for its production of highly classified war machines. Engineers at this top-secret campus have developed the U-2, SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk, F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II, and there are rumors of sixth-generation fighter jets in development.
Located sixty-two miles north of Los Angeles, Skunk Works in Palmdale, California, opened its doors to a select group of reporters on Aug. 10, for the first time in eight years, according to Air Force Magazine (AFM).
For defense and aviation journalists, having the ability to tour the state-of-the-art factory was equivalent to receiving a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory.
Skunk Works opened its doors to a select group of reporters during a ribbon-cutting ceremony of a new factory on its massive 539-acre campus.
AFM quoted Skunk Works Vice President and General Manager Jeff Babione, who expects the new facility will build “fighters; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft; hypersonic missiles; and other advanced projects, with possibly more than one project in series production at a time.”
Babione wouldn’t say if Lockheed would build Next-Generation Air Dominance fighters at the new plant.
“This is a one-of-a-kind facility,” he told reporters, adding that:
One of four new factories to be opened by Lockheed Martin nationwide this year, it is an “intelligent, flexible” facility where there are “no permanent structures… there’s nothing drilled into the floor,” he said, allowing the plant to be reconfigured at will for efficient, flexible manufacturing. This flips the concept of most factories—such that for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter in Fort Worth, Texas—designed specifically to produce a particular product.
“We have flexibility about where to put what you’re building within this massive floorplan,” he said. “Rather than the work coming to the robot, the robot will go to the work.” Robots will be able to perform one operation “on one end of the factory in the morning, and a completely different operation at the other end in the afternoon. So you’re going to see a significant increase in automation.”
The robots are commercial machines that Lockheed Martin will program. The software to make them do an operation “does not have to be resident” in the system, Babione said. This reduces cost because the same equipment is not dedicated solely to a particular function or program but has application to many projects.
The robots “will talk to each other,” Babione added. “How are we doing with cutter speed? Cutter sharpness … do we need to change things? How is the quality of the holes [being drilled]?” Other innovations include advanced test capabilities for wire bundles and laser systems that can spot out-of-tolerance part thicknesses to the thousandths of an inch.
“This will be the first factory at the highest level of classification but has Wi-Fi inside,” to enable the speed of information and allow the “men and women working in that environment” to know the status of the equipment and processes at all times, he said.
The new plant is a final assembly factory with parts from other campus areas and vendors infused by robots to produce war machines.
Byron Callan, managing director at Capital Alpha Partners, told Politico one of the main reasons Lockheed showed off its new facility is to one-up its competitors: Boeing and Northrop Grumman, all of which bid for Air Force contracts.
“So many of these things are being done in classified program settings,” Callan said. “It’s probably really just a way to say, ‘Hey, we’re competitive, we’ve made investments in some of these areas.'”
The reporters were escorted around the new facility and across the campus, sometimes in vans that moved in an underground network of tunnels. About 85% of the work completed on the campus is classified. One project where Skunk Works is open and is not considered unclassified is NASA’s X-59 supersonic flight demonstrator.
Like other companies, Lockheed is revamping how they do business to continue advancing their capabilities, such as fifth-generation aircraft, drones, and hypersonic weapons, to keep America dominant on the world stage.