Boeing’s [BA] defense business is investing in a number of capacity and technology areas to boost capabilities and become more agile and cost effective to meet future customer demands, the company’s top defense executive said on Thursday.
These investments run from leveraging lessons learned in digital engineering on the T-7 aircraft trainer programs and applying them to other programs to building a new factory for producing small satellites rapidly, Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said during a virtual media roundtable.
Caret described the investments in four areas, one of which is building of a new “purpose-built facility” for the MQ-25 unmanned aerial refueling aircraft the company is developing for the Navy. Boeing won the MQ-25 contract in 2018, a program potentially worth billions of dollars.
The new facility, which Boeing previously announced, is being built at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo.
The second key investment is a new factory within Boeing’s existing large satellite systems facility in El Segundo, Calif., near Los Angeles. This new “factory in a factory” is “specifically focused on agile, high-rate, flexible production for small satellites,” she said. “Very excited about that.”
Boeing in 2018 acquired Millennium Space Systems, a small El Segundo-based company that develops and produces small satellites. That deal gave Boeing an entrée into the small satellite market.
The market for space systems, in particular low-cost, small satellites that are rapidly produced to meet commercial, government, and national security needs, is growing quickly. This small satellite market is being dominated by dozens of small companies that are deploying satellite constellations for various types of remote sensing and communications.
In Australia, Boeing is also building a new production facility related to its Airpower Teaming System (ATS), Caret said.
The ATS effort is better known as Loyal Wingman, and is a stealthy, multirole, unmanned aircraft system that will fly with manned aircraft and use artificial intelligence to perform missions autonomously.
The fourth investment bucket is in facilities and capabilities in areas such as advanced composites, special coatings, and processes that Caret said “will advance us on both the unclass[ified] and classified front.” Construction on projects related to these efforts is underway at Boeing’s facilities in Mesa, Ariz., and St. Louis, she said.
Caret also highlighted digital engineering that Boeing has been using to develop and test the Air Force T-7 Red Hawk pilot training aircraft. In January, the test program achieved its 400th flight and data collected at the company’s facility in St. Louis during the flight-tests is being shared in real-time with program officials at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Caret said.
Last spring, Boeing and its teammate Saab joined the aft and front sections of the T-7 in less than 30 minutes, a feat accomplished in 95 percent less time than is typical and with significant quality improvements. Boeing attributed the advances in manufacturing to the digital engineering efforts used by the program.
Boeing builds the front section of the aircraft in St. Louis and Saab the aft portion in Sweden.
“We’re applying those same concepts to reimagine what I like to call our enduring platforms,” Caret said.
For example, she highlighted the latest variant of Boeing’s F-15 fighter aircraft, the EX, which went from contract award to flight tests with two aircraft in nine months. Those tests were followed shortly by the participation of the aircraft in the Northern Edge military exercise last spring.
“So, think about the transformative EX. We strategically deployed digital engineering and advanced manufacturing to ensure that we could rapidly inject technologies and capabilities,” she said. “It’s what allowed us to deliver as quickly as we did and be able to fully participate in the government’s exercises.”
Boeing is also applying virtual modeling, called digital twin technology, to its program to re-engine the B-52 bomber for the Air Force.
“Using the digital twin methodology that we’ve used on our clean sheet designs, we’ve applied it to the B-52 so that we can actually evaluate system performance without ever touching the aircraft,” Caret said.
Boeing is also expanding its use of additive manufacturing, which is also known as 3-D printing, Caret said. Across the company’s commercial, defense, space and rotorcraft platforms, Boeing has about 70,000 parts made using additive manufacturing, she said.
Boeing is expanding the use of additive manufacturing at Millennium Space Systems “so we can continue to deliver on high performance missions with incredibly fast timelines,” she said. “This really is a game changer when you think about production, schedule and cost, but also weight and performance.”