In just over two years since completing Critical Design Review, Northrop Grumman has brought its digital design of the B-21 Raider to life, with two test aircraft in production today. With first flight scheduled for 2022, we discuss the program’s status with Steve Sullivan, vice president and general manager, Strike Division.
Breaking Defense: The B-21 Raider is the first U.S. Air Force bomber being built in over 30 years. What sets this program apart from past programs?
Steve Sullivan: The Air Force has asked Northrop Grumman to deliver a 21st century platform that is affordable, producible, sustainable and maintainable, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Our relationship with the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (DAF RCO) is the key differentiator for this program. We have the shared goal of delivering this weapons system on time – and that means identifying issues early, and moving quickly and decisively together to address those issues and maintain our momentum.
The B-21 Raider is the first large-scale aircraft development program managed by the DAF RCO– so at its very foundation, the B-21 differs from traditional large acquisitions.
Another significant differentiator is our use of innovative digital tools and the solutions those tools enable to reduce technical risk and cost. What is particularly important is our deployment of these tools early in the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase.
From a capabilities perspective, counter-stealth technologies have continued to evolve at an exponential rate over the last 30 years. The B-21 is designed to continue outpacing adversaries’ technology; it will be capable of penetrating and surviving in advanced air defense environments.
Breaking Defense: Tell me what you’re doing to mitigate risk and unforeseen challenges.
Sullivan: We are committed to delivering the B-21 to the warfighter on time, so it’s imperative we do things differently. Unforeseen challenges and setbacks are what drive up costs and impact schedule, so we are reducing risk wherever possible using these digital tools.
Our approach to risk reduction includes a focus on extensive integration and test capacity. Northrop Grumman invested early in infrastructure, labs and our workforce at our Manned Aircraft Design Center of Excellence in Melbourne, Florida, to develop, integrate and test the bomber’s subsystems with varying levels of fidelity.
One example of this is how we are managing hardware and software integration and testing. We are testing systems in representative mission environments using a flexible development platform with innovative use of modeling and simulation tools. Most recently, we completed a demonstration with our flying test bed that validated the maturation of the B-21’s hardware and software integration progress. Demonstrations like these are what continue to build our customer’s confidence in our path to first flight.
And this isn’t the only example of where we are using a digital representation to burn down risk; far ahead of a traditional first flight, we have B-21’s “flying” in multiple lab environments on the ground and in the air, driving more time and cost out of traditional flight test.
We also have a lab dedicated for Air Force use that is providing a head start on software sustainment. This has given us the advantage of having mature software ready and waiting when our first test aircraft rolls off the line, and provides a smooth transition into sustainment. We’re driving risk out of flight test and into the labs where hardware and software issues can be more affordably corrected.
Breaking Defense: Air Force leaders, including Dr. Will Roper, the former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, have touted digital engineering as the future of aircraft design and manufacturing. How is the B-21 program taking advantage of these digital innovations?
Sullivan: Northrop Grumman is harnessing integrated digital technologies to rapidly conceptualize, design, build and sustain the B-21, and we are pioneering new approaches in digital engineering and advanced manufacturing in partnership with the U.S. Air Force.
Our approach is a combination of taking off-the-shelf digital tools and finding new, innovative applications that support design, production and sustainment, as well as leaning forward in agile software development and restricted, cloud-based software collaboration. What is most encouraging about the results we continue to see with our approach is the speed at which we’re able to execute efficiently, and the significant cost and risk reduction we’re seeing from design into manufacturing.
We’re using high-fidelity digital models shared across technical disciplines and program partners in the areas of design and structural, thermal, electrical, flight control, and signature analyses. We also have intelligent, automated design practices rolled out across the team that support standard hardware selection, the standardization of custom parts and machined part best practices.
On the production line, using the latest augmented reality (AR) headset technology, the manufacturing team essentially has the B-21 Raider under X-ray vision, and this technology is being used throughout the build process. During subsystem installations, for example, the team sees the future state of the build and can match real parts to the AR visual. Our engineering and production teams are constantly identifying new uses for the technology and will continue to expand its capabilities throughout aircraft production. We’re also already laying the groundwork for incorporating this technology into aircraft maintenance and sustainment.
Breaking Defense: What is Northrop Grumman developing that brings virtual and augmented reality to maintenance and sustainment operations for the B-21?
Sullivan: The concept of using augmented reality and virtual reality are not unique to B-21 or Northrop Grumman, but our application of these tools early in EMD and on the production line is unique. Through the use of our highly immersive virtual environment (HIVE), we are validating design, predicting production and sustainment efficiencies, and determining accessibility. A good example of this in support of our design is we’ve been able to virtually install aircraft components and validate the ability to maintain them before these components are even built or delivered to us.
An integral part of the HIVE’s effectiveness is our close partnership with U.S. Air Force maintenance personnel who will ultimately be responsible for maintaining the aircraft once fielded. These Airmen were heavily involved in the requirements definition process and helped us coordinate our design decisions. We have hosted these Airmen in our HIVE to oversee our various maintenance demonstrations, which helps us validate the design and/or adjust it as needed.
Through one of these HIVE assessments, we discovered that our bulkhead fasteners, which were originally planned to run forward to aft, could be more efficiently installed and maintained if they ran in reverse, aft to forward. This could seem like a simple issue and diagnosis, but correcting a seemingly minor maintenance challenge like this in design can often translate to critical time savings for a maintainer in the field. During the same assessment, we also found that interaction with these fasteners positioned the technician on top of hydraulic lines, risking damage to the lines. We avoided a number of costly issues down the road by changing the hydraulic lines’ location in the design before manufacturing.
Breaking Defense: You’ve highlighted several examples of what the program has done early to drive down risk, and you also mentioned reducing cost as a focus of these digital solutions. Can you elaborate on the cost impacts?
Sullivan: Reducing cost and reducing risk go hand in hand. The investment Northrop Grumman has made in lab infrastructure to prove our mature design is already paying dividends, which will continue down the production line.
We have a 270,000 sq. ft. dedicated lab facility in Melbourne that houses real aircraft hardware used for systems integration and simulation test equipment. This facility supports individual subsystem certification and certification of the integrated system as a whole.
This infrastructure and investment is all about early discovery. It’s always more economical to discover and fix hardware and software issues in the development lab than it is once the first aircraft has been built and is being tested. A single major discovery in early development, rather than in flight test, can save millions of dollars in unexpected cost. Now, multiply that by hundreds of early discoveries.
Breaking Defense: Northrop Grumman recently marked the five-year anniversary of the start of design and build work on the B-21 Raider. Can you share insight into where the program currently is?
Sullivan: We have two aircraft in flow at our Aircraft Integration Center of Excellence in Palmdale, California.
The team is making terrific progress. I couldn’t be more proud of how our team is increasing the speed at which the vehicles are moving down the line, and this speed has really been made possible by the digital tools we have put in place and the very talented workforce we have on this program.
What we have on the production line now are so much more than just test articles; they’re validating our production processes and tooling. So when you look at B-21 across the board, we have lab infrastructure driving risk out of flight test; we have test aircraft that are driving risk out of production; we have innovative applications of digital tools and software development that are proving highly effective in increasing our speed and efficiency; and we have a digital foundation for long-term sustainment and upgradeability already in place years before initial operational capability.
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