News | Aug 18, 2017

The Inlet Duct Robotic Drilling Cell for F-35 Assembly

Construction of the F-35 Lightning II prototypes had hit a snag. Small-statured workers were having to squeeze into inlet ducts to drill hundreds of holes by hand to prepare ducts for attachment to the airframe. Not only was the inside-out drilling process unsustainable for workers, but in ultra-high-performance aircraft like the F-35, holes must be extremely consistent and precise.

Northrop Grumman, a principle member of the F-35 industry team, took the challenge to the automotive sector, and in 2007, Michigan-based Variation Reduction Solutions, Inc. (VRSI) won a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to find solutions. Three short years later, Northrop Grumman integrated the game-changing Inlet Duct Robotic Drilling (IDRD) cell into their F-35 Integrated Assembly Line, calling it the “crown jewel” of their production line.

The VRSI-led IDRD technology is just one of many successful innovations enabled by the US Air Force’s SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. For more information, visit

JSF clearance: JSF17 –341