Palmdale Solution Seekers

by Suzanne Kubler

The fast-paced F-35 Integrated Assembly Line in Palmdale, California, must run efficiently, with safety and quality top-of-mind. The line requires calculated teamwork and technicians operating quickly and carefully to stay on schedule. Toward the end of the line, specialists work in close quarters under the aircraft to install rubber grommets, rectangular-shaped insulation that holds the center fuselage’s electrical wiring.

“We are like a family, working elbow to elbow, delivering a complete center fuselage — what I call the heart of the aircraft — every 1.25 days,” said Manufacturing Manager Christie Flores.

Maintaining exceptional quality while operating safely and efficiently are essential to the assembly line’s success, shared Christie, and the team has monthly innovation meetings to look for ways to make processes better. In March 2023, a manufacturing team member suggested improving the modification process for the grommets that hold the electrical wires running through the F-35 center fuselage. Each grommet had to be altered to make room for the cables to fit, and the existing process required drilling into each one, a 45-minute process that created fumes and excessive heat.

“We knew there had to be a better way and wanted help finding it,” said Christie. For funding, she reached out to SPARK, an enterprise-wide initiative supporting early research and development efforts, and, for tooling expertise, she turned to the Palmdale Fabrication Lab (FabLab), one of more than a dozen non-production makerspaces located at Northrop Grumman sites across the U.S.

SPARK a Resolution

Jessie Bacchus, a systems engineer and former Palmdale FabLab lead, offered to organize a solution-seeking team to improve the grommet modification process.

“I knew the answer needed to be simple, portable, safe, quick and easy to train someone to operate,” said Jessie.

Configuration Analyst Brian Heess was one of many who were eager to help. With the support of Northrop Grumman’s Global Supply Chain team, he reached out to the maker of the part.

“I got us real data on how the grommets were made and any possible problems with modifying them,” said Brian.

The solution team, consisting of members of the F-35 assembly line and Palmdale FabLab, visited the production line to observe the existing process and better understand the challenges and how they could help. They saw that the current drilling process created heat, making the soft rubber material gummy and difficult to precisely cut. Next, the team held brainstorming sessions and received more than 20 suggestions from all departments, sites, shifts and roles, from managers to engineers and technicians to interns.

“We would just throw out ideas and then that would spark another idea and so on,” said Brian. “This allowed the team to analyze each for safety, speed, simplicity and cost.”

The Fix

In August 2023, the group tested their top solution: a leather punch combined with an Arbor Press, which is a sharp cookie cutter-type tool used with a powerful press to push it through the grommet.

“It's a phenomenal solution that saves so much time and is a much cleaner process for these technicians. Our modification time went from 45 minutes down to a matter of seconds,” said Christie. “This makes things so much better for my team.”

Aircraft Electrician Rudy Sotelo has modified grommets both ways. He said the new process gives him time back to get other work done.

“This fix is great — it's a night and day difference,” said Rudy. “Everybody's really grateful.”

For Jessie, this entire experience speaks to the importance of teamwork and she’s proud so many people were willing to help.

“It's very important to get many different thoughts and minds involved,” said Jessie. “You may have one particular role at Northrop Grumman, but your insights can be valuable across the entire company.”

Life at Northrop Grumman

Your work at Northrop Grumman makes a difference. Whether you want to design next-generation aircraft, harness digital technologies or build spacecraft that will return humanity to the moon, you’ll contribute to technology that’s transforming the world. Check out our career opportunities to see how you can help define possible.

three men standing with one woman sitting

Swimming with the Sharks

Vernon and Adrienne are responsible for testing an electronic countermeasures system on B-1B bomber planes.

man in wheelchair at picnic table

The Mountain

“It’s a blessing to me to know that I am useful, every day.”

A dragon boat with 20 rowers is shown in silhouette as it moves along a river.

Making a Splash

Visit any marina and you may spot an ornately carved wooden serpent gliding across the water.