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.
Adopted Agile and Scrum to Auto Manufacturing and Rockets
Agile methodologies or scrum were methods and processes developed by others for software development. There are short iterations which are typically two weeks to a month per cycle. There is a continuous improvement process or a certain amount of completed tasks over the cycle where at the end there is a testable partially completed product. The prior methods was the waterfall method where things are designed and then built over a long time and then tested.
Tesla does not have model years. They have very slight incremental changes all the time on assembly-line so a car that you get at the beginning in the model year and the end of the model year is not quite the same car it’s a slightly improved version of the car.
They can send significant improvements to their customer’s cars with remote software updates.
Going to First Principles
Elon looks at 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 this much fuel and the total the sum of the material cost this much on the open market. The value-added price was very high compared to the material costs. Elon thought why could this not be cheaper.
If you buy wood furniture that’s hardwood there’s almost no incremental cost between the cost which is buying the lumber. Furniture has no price gained unless there is a highly skilled craftsmen who adds skill and artistry. Elon saw this opportunity with rockets.
Elon looks at the perfect product would be like. He thinks of the Platonic ideal. Plato thought of the perfect sphere or perfect triangle. Elon considered the electric car and the perfect rocket.
Elon starts with 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.
This more rapid testing leads to more rapid development.