SpaceX Lessons Which Massively Speed Improvement of Products

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 lab for thermal protection system research for re-entry vehicles. It became the best lab in the world in nine months starting from an empty room. They use rapid development cycles based on processes used for rapid fighter pilot reaction.

The OODA loop uses
observe
orient
decide
act

The faster a fighter pilot could through this loop of iterations, then the more likely they were to win a dogfight.

SpaceX engineers working 80-hour weeks don’t have to iterate between themselves and another engineer to get effective use of their time. Very fast engineering reaction also means avoiding meetings with managers or for review unless absolutely needed.

The Skunk Works was the small team at Lockheed that famously made the huge advances to make the SR-71 mach 3+ spyplane.

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.

This more rapid testing leads to more rapid development.

22 thoughts on “SpaceX Lessons Which Massively Speed Improvement of Products”

  1. thats kind of the point of nextbigfuture and is a signature brian wang style that makes this my go to activity once or twice a day. I would love to brian to get one or two other people to write some more content. Maybe goat guy to edit and make articles and will just do it for free. 😉

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  2. Brett. Sorry i missed this comment until I just copied the same bad paragraph. Fixed from new article and repaired it here. Hopefully better.

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  3. My only disagreement would be that SpaceX or whatever alternative Musk & co would have thought of, would have taken longer. I don’t think they’d have failed for good.

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  4. There’s nothing new about exercise and diet, but most Americans are over-weight, and don’t start their days with a hundred sit ups. The rocketry business was addicted to cost plus contracts, Musk saw an opportunity to break into the business by applying known principles of aggressive capitalism.

    He’d still have failed if the government had been just a little more devoted to maintaining the crony capitalism that had prevailed before he came along.

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  5. Thanks so much, Brian! I was wondering why my talk had so many views compared to the others this time around. Then I go to this blog, which has been one of my favorites for years, and here I am reading about myself. What an awesome way to end the day!
    If anyone wants cleaner PDF versions of my slides or to see other talks of mine on space settlement challenges and solutions, go to my MacroInvent. com web site. Then go to Videos in the menu bar.
    Also, look over the Mars Society YouTube channel for a lot of brilliant work, both from the professionals in the plenary sessions and people like myself in the track talks over the years.

    Kent Nebergall
    MacroInvent.com and Mars Society Steering Committee chair

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  6. Look, covering Phobos with aluminum foil just isn’t going to be part of colonizing Mars. It’s not in a synchronous orbit, which makes it lousy for ground illumination; You’d have to be continually reorienting the mirrors, and most of the time it wouldn’t be in a position to illuminate the colony.

    A soletta might make sense, Mars synchronous orbit is a lot closer to the planet than geosynch here, and you could station a solar power satellite there, too.

    But you’re not going to cover Phobos with aluminum foil. It just doesn’t make sense.

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  7. Great article — write that on a rock!

    The stark differences in approach between NASA (and the rest of the government agencies doing space launch) and Space X is stark. It is obvious this is an implementation of Scrum / Agile largely developed in the software game.

    If it is Elon, if it is Gwynne — thank you!

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  8. It’s both; A bad process can hobble the best engineering staff, just as mediocrities can’t accomplish much even given good process.

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  9. Mat … His idea of sending people to mars could be a good idea. However more infastructure is needed to send people to mars. One, strategically placed reflective material on phobos. Two, better way to get water on mars or lots of water extracted from the moon. Three, ways to cut down or decrease the duration of dust storms. Four, bury buildings in a crater and cover them over. That will cut down on the wind robbing the heat from them, naturally insulating it, shield against harmful radiation and dust storms. If all four of these ideas are impemented it could make it slightly easier for humans to perform their tasks on mars.

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  10. you people always miss the point. out of 1000 engineers only 1 will be hired because the rest arnt good enough. The 999 left over work for boing, ula, gm or other because the’ll never accomplish anything important. Its the people not the process that’s most important.

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  11. Good God, Brian, find somebody to proof read your copy! This entire paragraph is one sentence, and not a coherent one, either!

    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.

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  12. Its actually a quite important business management presentation;

    This should be MBA class, not a one off by a few choice corporations. Amazons rapid expansion is another out-performer that should be studied.

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