Among the notable centers of invention throughout the ages were Leonardo da Vinci's long-forgotten workshop, which was adorned with frescoes painted by the renaissance master, and it even had a secret room for dissecting human cadavers; Thomas Edison's laboratory at Menlo Park, the world's first such research and development facility; and Nikola Tesla's Experimental Station in Colorado Springs.
Today there are countless military R&D facilities of note around the world, yet when it comes to the development of military aviation, nothing quite compares to Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs' (ADP) facility in Palmdale, California. It is more commonly known by its official pseudonym, Skunk Works, taken from the moonshine factory in the long-running comic strip Lil' Abner.
It was at the Skunk Works where some of the most famous U.S. military aircraft were developed, beginning with the P-38 Lightning in 1939, followed by the P-80 Shooting Star in 1943. During the Cold War, the facility played a role in the development of the U-2, SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk, and later the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II.
Throughout its long history, the mission of the Skunk Works has remained unchanged: "build the world's most experimental aircraft and breakthrough technologies in abject secrecy at a pace impossible to rival."
Now, in 2021, the center of innovation seems poised to take on the great power challenges of today and tomorrow.
Skunk Works in the 21st Century
As the United States Department of Defense (DoD) has put a renewed focus on near-peer adversaries – notably China and Russia – the role of the Skunk Works is again to develop the aircraft to address the threats of the 21st century.
Twenty months after Lockheed Martin officially broke ground for its new advanced manufacturing facility, this month the defense giant unveiled a new "intelligent, flexible factory." It is one of four transformational manufacturing facilities that the defense contracting giant announced would be opening in the United States this year. It is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified green building.
Guests at last Tuesday's ribbon-cutting event included dignitaries including California republican Rep. Mike Garcia, local Assemblyman Tom Lackey and Dee Dee Myers, senior advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom and director of the Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development.
"For more than 100 years, Lockheed Martin has been proud to call California home," said Jeff Babione, vice president, and general manager, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, via a release. "Our partnership with the state has helped us remain competitive and has positioned us for long-term growth. The technology in our new Palmdale facility lets us go beyond manufacturing optimization to the next digital revolution, driving innovation and preserving California's leadership in the aerospace industry."
The new 215,000 square foot factory will take the Skunk Works into the mid-21st century and beyond. It will also mark a return to manufacturing for Skunk Works, which had years ago transitioned to mostly design work. The new facility has the digital foundations to incorporate smart manufacturing components, whilst embracing the Internet of Things (IoT) and being able to deliver cutting-edge solutions rapidly and affordably to support the United States and its allies.
The building incorporates all three of Lockheed Martin's advanced production priorities: an intelligent factory framework; a technology-enabled advanced manufacturing environment; and a flexible factory construct to support customer priorities with speed and agility while bolstering manufacturing capability in the United States. It will embrace the company's model-based digital engineering methods with advanced technologies including artificial intelligence, augmented reality (AR), and robotics.
Those robots could be assigned to multiple projects and even respond accordingly to the required tasks while being able to communicate to increase efficiency at the facility.
No More Pocket Protectors
Instead of paper and pencils, designers will employ advanced computer tablets to troubleshoot and work through the problems that come in the R&D stage. The facility won't likely just focus on developing the tools to fight a potential war, but could also have a greater emphasis on the efforts to develop the tools to create those weapons.
"Some of the most advanced research these days is surely in manufacturing," explained Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland.
"The DoD has cutting edge systems that work well yet are spectacularly complex to manufacture and even more complex to maintain. That complexity translates to cost," Purtilo told The National Interest. "Developing ways to manufacture sustainable versions of these systems without loss of functionality would be a huge force multiplier."
This is where AI and robotics could aid in the manufacturing process.
"Automating what are currently artisanal processes, designing with robust supply chains in mind, narrowing the gap between inspiration and deployment, reducing risks for early adopters - these are all things we'd like in a technology accelerator," added Purtilo.
The cavernous facility was designed to be environmentally controlled to stay within 2.5 degrees of a set temperature, Babione told reporters during the press conference that officially unveiled the facility to the public. That is being done in order to minimize the changes of a material in response to heat or humidity, allowing joints to line up as they were designed to using digital thread methods, Air Force magazine reported.
This is important as modern composites can react to changes in temperature and humidity differently than steel, while aluminum and titanium also can react differently. By maintaining a constant, components can be assembled at the temperature at which they were manufactured and eliminate the need to do drilling in the facility.
The facility's massive air conditioning system will reportedly be powered by a new solar farm that is placed adjacent to the plant. Once completed, the solar farm will consist of some 52,000 solar panels.
Increased Work Force
In addition to what the facility could mean for the DoD in the coming years, the Skunk Works will also be a boon to the local economy. The company has created over 1,500 new jobs for California since 2018.
Beyond manufacturing, the facility includes office and break spaces to accommodate more than 450 employees. This project is also the cornerstone of over $400 million in capital investments being made across Lockheed Martin's Palmdale campus to address growth in support of its customers' missions.
It could also be seen as a significant leap forward for the defense contractor as well.
"Lockheed Martin's new Skunk Works' manufacturing facility is intriguing both technologically and from the perspective of corporate branding," said technology industry analyst Charles King of Pund-IT.
"The building incorporates the company's three priorities for advanced production: an intelligent factory framework; technology-enabled advanced manufacturing tools and processes, and flexible factory methodologies designed to quickly and agilely support customer priorities while also bolstering U.S.-based manufacturing capabilities," King told The National Interest. "By utilizing technologies, including robotics, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality, Lockheed aims to enhance production processes while also improving customer value and satisfaction."
The Old Innovation for a New Lockheed Martin
The new facility in many ways builds on what set the old Lockheed Corporation apart – when it was the company that developed such notable aircraft as the SR-71 Blackbird and F-117 Nighthawk, among others.
"The naming choice for the facility suggests that the company is trying to harken back to both its innovative roots and the golden era when it was a trusted source for some of the world's most technologically advanced aerospace, defense, and security products and systems," added King.
"While the original Skunk Works was originally a nickname for the facilities that housed Lockheed's Advanced Development Programs (ADP) and often focused on highly classified U.S. DoD projects, the company now seems to be trying to apply some of that old mojo onto its more mainstream commercial endeavors," King noted.
In many ways, the new Skunk Works is a smart step forward, and this manufacturing facility could be posed to create the tools that are needed to address future threats.
"When it comes to innovation, building one of some new product creates a novelty; building that product repeatedly, predictably, and economically creates impact," explained Purtilo. "We see this in other domains. Lockheed Martin has much the same leverage in mind as it launches its new Skunk Works."
A National Interest Defense Contributor, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.