Elon Musk’s 5 Manufacturing Principles

This won’t be the first time that I am writing about Elon Musk. There is a good reason for this. Like many other technology nerds, I am infatuated with Elon’s ability to approach some of the worlds largest problems systematically and methodically. In a recent interview Elon spoke to Tim Dodd about the 5 Manufacturing Principles that govern SpaceX’s Starship Development Program.

Before I outline the 5 principles, I think it’s important to provide some context. At the time of writing this, SpaceX has just recently been awarded a massive contract with NASA to provide the HLS (Human Landing System). SpaceX will be responsible, along with NASA, for getting people back to the moon for the first time since the Apollo era. SpaceX has received flack from the likes of Amazon for it’s seemingly complex systems. Here is where SpaceX is different to any other space company that has come before. SpaceX isn’t just trying to create one single viable rocket like NASA’s SLS (Space Launch System). In other words, they’re not just doing enough, SpaceX wants to make the rapid manufacturing of Cheap Reusable rockets a possibility.

Elon’s approach to SpaceX’s manufacturing process is no doubt thanks to years of experience that he has gained solving issues on the Tesla manufacturing lines.

I’m not in manufacturing, why should I care?

The lessons that we can learn from this are valuable. While this is specific to the scalability of a manufacturing process, we can apply these rules to our own lives. Especially, in the work place. The reality is that the systems we create determine the behaviour of those who are at mercy of the system.

The manufacturing problem

One of the problems with scaling a manufacturing process, is that you’ll often have multiple teams developing different parts in isolation. Elon has a great anecdote that demonstrates the issue with development in isolation:

There was a process in the Tesla Manufacturing process that required a robot to glue a thermal mat to the Tesla’s battery. This process was a choking point in the entire manufacturing process of the Tesla. Elon tried various different approaches to alleviate the choke point. He tried to speed the process up by making the robot go faster. He made the robot apply less glue. Eventually he asked the department in charge of fire safety the reason for the thermal mat. Their response was that it was for noise and vibrations reduction. When Elon spoke to the team in charge of noise and vibrations, they said it was for fire safety. When they removed the mat there was no notable difference in the noise an vibrations and it didn’t pose any threat to fire safety.

Step 1 – Make your requirements less dumb, your requirements are definitely dumb.

Always question requirements, especially if they came from a smart person. I respect smart people. But sometimes they are too smart for their own good. If there is a very small chance of something happening, it’s not always necessary to complicate the process to create redundancies for something that may never happen.

Requirements should come with a name, not a department. This way you can talk to a person directly about why that requirement exists. When requirements come from departments we end up with Fire Mat issues.

Step 2 – Try very hard to delete the step or process.

“If you’re not occasionally adding stuff back, then you’re not deleting enough” – Elon Musk.

You’ve probably heard the story about the oven and the lamb shank. The story goes like this:

A woman asked her mother why she always cut the lamb shank in half before putting it into the oven. Her mother replied “because that’s they way that my mother always did it.” The woman, curious to understand why her grand mother cooked like this, went to her grand mother and asked her why she always cut the lamb shank in half. The grand mother replied: “because our oven was too small to fit the whole thing in half.”

The lesson here is that it’s dangerous to do something just because that’s how it ways always done. Step 2 in Elon Musk’s 5 step manufacturing process helps him avoid this issue. By regularly testing if a step can be deleted he is avoiding the lamb shank problem from happening on his production line.

Step 3 – Simplify or Optimize

It’s the most common error of a smart engineer, is to optimize something that shouldn’t exist. The reason for this that convergent logic is programmed into us from a young age. Convergent logic is when you are given a whole set of facts and asked to solve a problem. The problem with this is that you can’t use “out of the box thinking” or lateral thinking. Instead of asking “what is the answer to this question?”, ask: “should we be answering this question?”
There is a maxim in SpaceX and Tesla engineering circles: “No Part, is the best part. Elon talks about how smart engineers will try optimize something that doesn’t need to exist in the first place. A good example of this would be the grid fins on Super Heavy Boosters. At first they were depicted to fold against the rocket when not in use, but in reality this would create a layer of unneeded complexity. So, when the first grid fins were attached they didn’t fold against the rocket.

Some people were concerned that the grid fins not folding would create additional drag, but this wasn’t the case. Making the grid fins able to fold would have required complex mechanical systems that would have made the rocket heavier. In rocketry, every pound counts.

Step 4 – Accelerate Cycle Time

Don’t go faster until you’ve mastered the previous 3 things. If you have requirements that are unnecessary, parts that are over engineered or processes that are unnecessary then speeding them up won’t solve the problem.

Like in the example of the Tesla thermal mat, trying to speed things up isn’t going to help much if the process can be eliminated or simplified.

Step 5 – Automate

This is self explanatory. Once you’ve done the the above 4 steps, try to make them work with as little human intervention as possible. Human error can slow you down. There is no need to have someone doing a job that a robot or an app like zapier can do. Be weary of automation though, automating something that shouldn’t exist in the first place can waste many hours. I am speaking from personal experience.

Putting them together

To make a smart process Elon Musk style you’ll need to:

  1. Make requirements less dumb
  2. Delete unnecessary steps and processes
  3. Simplify and Optimize
  4. Accelerate Cycle Time
  5. Automate

These 5 steps can be applied to every day life, not just the manufacturing process. Many business processes suffer from the same process bloat as the manufacturing process.

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