Elon Musk on Design, Development, and Manufacturing

Recently, I went down a SpaceX rabbit hole where Elon Musk shared his thoughts on design, development, and manufacturing. Here are some choice insights from Elon as he talks about the SpaceX Starship, a fully re-useable rocket.

  • If a design is taking too long, the design is wrong and therefore the design needs to be modified to accelerate progress.
  • One of the most fundamental errors we’ve made to advance development is to stick to a design even when it is very complicate and to not strive to delete parts and processes.
  • Everyone is chief engineer, everyone must understand how all the systems work so that you don’t have subsystem optimization.
  • The product errors reflect the organizational errors. Whatever departments you have, that will be where your interfaces will be. Instead of questioning the constraints, one department will design to the constraints that the other department has given them without calling into question and saying those constraints are wrong.
  • You should actual take the approach that the constraints you are given are some degree wrong, the counterpoint would be that they’re perfect.
  • One of the biggest traps for smart engineers is optimizing a thing that shouldn’t exist.
  • We often try to answer the questions we are given, instead of questioning the premise of the question itself.
  • We can produce boosters and ships way easier than we can make the launch site.
  • It’s 10 to 100 times more effort to design the manufacturing system than the engine (a first of its kind).
  • The amount that goes into the design rounds into zero, relative to the amount of effort that goes into the manufacturing system.
  • All designs are wrong, it’s just a matter of how wrong. Everyone is wrong, no matter who you are, everyone is wrong some of the time.

In large part from his experience at Telsa, Elon is now using this Five Step Process at SpaceX.

Five Step Process

  • Make your requirements less dumb, your requirements are definitely dumb. It doesn’t matter who gave them to you. It’s particularly dangerous if a smart person gave you the requirements because you might not question them enough.
  • Try very hard to delete a part or process. If you are not occasionally adding things back in, you are not deleting enough.
  • Simplify or optimize. The reason this is the third step is that it is very common for a smart engineer to optimize a thing that should not exist.
  • Accelerate cycle time, you are moving too slowly but don’t go faster than until you’ve work on the other things first. If you are digging your grave don’t dig faster, stop digging your grave.
  • The final step is automate.

About the above process, Elon states the following.

  • I’ve personally made the mistake of going backwards on all five steps, multiple times.

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