FORT WORTH, TX-The first-ever continuous moving assembly line for producing fighter jets is being explored by engineers at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. Adopting such an approach could increase production efficiency, reduce floor space and avoid an estimated $300 million in expenses over the life of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.

The F-35 is a stealthy, supersonic multirole fighter designed to replace a wide range of aging fighter and strike aircraft. Three variants derived from a common design will ensure that it meets the performance needs of the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and allied defense forces worldwide, while staying within strict affordability targets. The first F-35 is scheduled for completion in mid-2005, with first flight planned for late that year.

"Affordability is the cornerstone on which the JSF program is built, and we're beginning to see how a continuous moving assembly line could help us meet our commitment to keep costs low," says Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin executive vice president and JSF program general manager. "We are in the process of weighing the up-front investments against the long-term returns. So far, we like what we see."

Members of the F-35 production team recently began laying out a preliminary plan for a continuous moving line. Using a full-scale model, the team simulated processes for installing aircraft systems as the jet crept along an imaginary track.

"The last time this plant saw a moving assembly line, it was pumping out B-24s at tremendous rates during World War II," says Burbage. "Since then, the moving-line concept has been greatly refined, and is now used in the assembly of some large commercial airliners. The F-35 program is all about innovation, so if ours were the first fighter jet to be built on a continuous moving line, it would simply be following an established path of product advancement."