Northrop Grumman Corp. is investing more than $100 million in an integrated assembly line for the F-35 Lightning II jet fighter program. The automated line will enable the company to produce one center fuselage per day.

Northrop Grumman Corp. has awarded KUKA System North America a $100 million contract to install an integrated assembly line for the F-35 Lightning II jet fighter program. The automated line will be installed between 2010 and 2014, and enable Northrop Grumman to achieve a production rate of one center fuselage per day.

The groundbreaking contract covers the supply, installation and commissioning of all assembly tooling and equipment. “That’s over 500 tools required for 78 tool positions occupying 200,000 square feet of floor space,” says Robert Reno, KUKA’s director of aerospace operations.

The company is supplying some of its own aerospace automation tools and solutions, as well as articulated robots. Airframe assembly tools will include automatic laser welding and automated panelization systems, in addition to multifunctional robot end effectors for drilling, sealant and fastener insertion.

According to Reno, this is the first time that a large aerospace manufacturer has contracted with a robotics vendor to supply and install a complete assembly line and “underscores how major aerospace companies are embracing large-scale automation. When completed, the center fuselage assembly line will represent the culmination of many person years of development by KUKA Systems and Northrup Grumman, working collaboratively, to design and install an aircraft manufacturing line as a fully optimized system rather than as a conglomeration of independent tooling stations.

“No major aerospace company has ever really contracted a supplier like us to design and build an entire integrated assembly line,” adds Reno. “Typically, large aerospace manufacturers are their own integrators, bidding specific parts of the assembly line from different suppliers and then integrating them. In this case, Northrop Grumman wanted the most efficient process design layout to produce one center fuselage per day and sought out our expertise in automation.”