Kent Nebergall writes at macroinvent.com. Kent spoke at the 21st Annual International Mars Society Convention about reverse engineering SpaceX so we can accelerate like Elon. He looks first at the general process that Elon takes to generate his products. Here is a summary of Kent’s presentation from the video.
I would recommend looking at the embedded video and watching Kent’s complete talk. However, here are my key takeaways from Kent’s talk.
Note: Elon did not invent completely new methods. Elon did bring methods from computer software development or other areas and applied them to cars and rockets. People in different areas of manufacturing and business should consider applying these methods.
Adopted Agile and Scrum to Auto Manufacturing and Rockets
Agile methodologies or scrum were methods and processes developed by others for software development. This method uses short development iterations which are typically two weeks to a month per cycle. It is a continuous improvement or development process. The Waterfall method was the dominant project management approach before Agile.
Tesla does not have model years like traditional car companies. They make continuous slight incremental changes all the time on assembly-line. A Tesla car at the beginning year is not quite the same car at the end of the year. It is a slightly improved version of the car.
They can also send significant improvements to their customer’s cars with remote software updates.
Going to First Principles
Elon starts his engineering from first principles. He wants to know everything down to the physics of exactly why something is possible or impossible. He was thinking in terms of how much aluminum and how much titanium and fuel is used in a rocket. He compared the sum of the material cost and the rocket launch prices paid by customers of the rocket companies. Elon believed this could be many times cheaper.
Wood furniture is priced very closely to the cost of materials. Furniture has no price gained unless there is a highly skilled craftsmen who adds skill and artistry.
Elon next imagines what the perfect product would be like. He thinks of the Platonic ideal. Plato thought of the perfect sphere or perfect triangle. Elon considered the characteristics of the perfect electric car and the perfect rocket.
Elon then starts building the minimum viable product version of the perfect vehicle. After the minimum product is built there is rapid iteration toward the ideal vehicle.
There is modularity and use of the existing components until they need to be replaced. As the entire existing design become obsolete, there is a willingness to discard the old design.
Skunk Works at SpaceX for Thermal Protection
SpaceX built an entire they built the best thermal protection system like for re-entry vehicles as of Wirth lab in the world in nine months starting with an empty shell of a room in fighter pilot circles they a guy named John Boyd came up what was called the OODA loop witches observe orient decide act and the faster a fighter pilot could through this loop of iterations the more likely they were to win a competition and in the air between them and an opponent this has been applied to other circles well part of the other reason you have engineers working 80-hour weeks is they don’t have to iterate between themselves and another engineer to get that 80 hours it’s one guy doing everything in his own head so he has a very fast reaction loop he doesn’t have to go to a meeting.
51% Experimentation Rule
SpaceX will test once they have a 51% chance of success. They will take the least amount of material that will get them valid results. NASA would wait until they had 80-90% chance of success and there would be lot more meetings about the work or process.