Optimizing the Manufacturing and Assembly of T-38 Aircraft Wings

The Air Force trains new pilots on the Northrop T-38 Talon, leading to significant wear and tear on the aircraft, and in particular the wings. Presently, production of replacement wings and associated repairs takes a lengthy amount of time due to outdated part designs and processes, so the Air Force is looking to optimize wing manufacturing and assembly.

The CTMA Program has stepped in to fill this need by launching a collaboration between the Air Force and the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR): Wing Optimization
for Manufacturability.

“A key Air Force challenge is getting wings often enough,” explained Allison Bonitati, NIAR’s Director of Programs and Finance. “This is a full-scale wing redesign. Our team is comprised of about 400 engineers, and we have a full MRO team that does manufacturing and modification of aircraft.”

“Our goal is to be able to use our expertise to analyze all the options, newer technologies, and processes to provide a solution to the Air Force to support their needs for the T-38 wing replacements,” added Amber Delong, who is managing the project for NIAR.

There was a redesign of the T-38 wings around 2000, so the team is working from that design, but some of the components are from the original aircraft, which is over 60 years old. The team is investigating the current manufacturing and assembly process to increase efficiency. They are researching various options such as part consolidation and finding alternative materials that are more readily available and require less manufacturing time.

“We’re primarily looking at castings, forgings, and extrusions that have been used historically but can be improved with modern machine capabilities,” said Delong.

“The modern machine technologies allow us to make an equivalent strength part in less time,” added Bonitati.

The team is currently in the first phase of what will be a multi-phase project. In this first phase, the collaborators are reviewing the data to determine the necessary trade studies to conduct. For example, one trade study will perform calculations to see if parts can be switched to a different material without invalidating the integrity of the wing. This trade study will require weight and strength comparisons between the original and proposed replacement materials.

“Another trade study we’ll need to do is on the airworthiness approach for certification of the wing,” explained Delong. The trade studies will provide a formal cost-benefit analysis, where different options are weighed against each other, along with a decision matrix formalizing all the information, for Air Force decision-makers.

The next steps will be to share the findings with the Air Force, then move into concept design review, where the team will preliminarily lay out the engineering and study stress, fatigue, parts, materials, and certification. The project will utilize the Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) approach, which is focused on optimizing the design to reduce manufacturing and assembly time to increase the production rate. The initiative will culminate in the production of a prototype T-38 wing.

“Supply chain has been challenging for everyone,” said Bonitati. “The redesign might alleviate supply chain issues because we can identify materials that are more common, readily available, and machined in more than one location.”

The project is scheduled to be completed in December 2024.