SpaceX Lessons Which Massively Speed Improvement of Products

Kent Nebergall writes at 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

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.