I read the recent Elon Musk biography by Walter Isaacson. Here is a summary of some interesting things that fellow people in manufacturing can learn from the maverick entrepreneur. One of his competencies is making positive DFM (Design for Manufacturing) changes, and I’ll also discuss his 5-point algorithm for success created from his successes and mistakes and examples of where he revolutionised the industries he operates in through daring and sometimes risky choices.
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Elon Musk: A great contributor to humanity?
Musk is a modern captain of industry but is he one of humanity’s great contributors? Maybe not. Arguably, he neglects to make our planet better with his wealth and influence in favor of exploring Mars. Also, with Tesla, he didn’t revolutionize the EV industry, he merely kept the USA in the race when compared with the state-backed might of the Chinese EV industry. In fact, the famous ‘Dieselgate’ scandal involving VW cars also probably did as much as Tesla to move the world towards widespread EV adoption as it caused the European Commission to alter its stance on internal combustion engine cars perhaps sooner than expected. One thing is for sure, he created a very important space enterprise, SpaceX, and also took Tesla from a failing business to a prominent auto manufacturer. (06:25)
Automation then de-automation
Perhaps around 5 or 6 years Musk became quite obsessed with automation and he ignored the normal automation phases in some of his manufacturing facilities. Experts at the time said that ditching effective manual processes for full automation was a mistake and it turned out that they were right because his robot workforce ended up causing delays and quality issues, and was less reliable than production operators.
He learned from this mistake to the point where at his battery gigafactory in Nevada he opened a new large door in a wall in order to get the automating equipment out as fast as possible so human operators could take its place. His mantra now is that humans are undervalued — in many cases they can do the work faster and more reliably. (09:21)
Making design engineers responsible for the manufacturing process + other improvements.
At SpaceX, instead of separate departments, Musk made product design engineers responsible for the production process, in terms of making the product easier and cheaper to manufacture. He also located them as closely as possible to the production lines so they could actually observe what was happening on the shop floor in real-time and devise ways to improve things. SpaceX and Tesla make a lot of their parts and write their software themselves and Musk considers this a strong competitive advantage. Tesla is quite unique among automakers in writing software itself and SpaceX is unique in the airspace industry for producing its own parts. The latter is beneficial because they can iterate parts to have improvements and then produce them a lot faster than their competition because they control it all in-house. (11:26)
Musk’s 5-point algorithm for success developed through learning from mistakes.
Musk’s willingness to learn from mistakes is an admirable quality, but it’s odd that he didn’t at first try to avoid mistakes by learning how the elite manufacturers of the world’s most advanced and competitive industries did things successfully. Anyway, having learned from his mistakes he developed a 5-point algorithm for success:
- Question every requirement – Musk doesn’t blindly follow rules as he does not want a proliferation of rules that can bog down innovation over time, especially when you have layers of rules, such as older ones and those that have superseded them. Even where regulations are involved, he likes to push their boundaries and ask for forgiveness later if found to have broken them in the name of progress rather than asking for permission in advance.
Internally he has made a culture of questioning requirements, too. Each requirement (which could be a part or specification) needs to have an actual person’s name (they could be a designer, legal counsel, etc) assigned to it so they can be questioned on why it is needed in a particular design, what would happen if it was omitted, and if that scenario has been tested. Musk says: “You should never accept that a requirement came from a department, such as from ‘the legal department’ or ‘the safety department.’ Then you should question it, no matter how smart that person is. Requirements from smart people are the most dangerous because people are less likely to question them. Always do so, even if the requirement came from me. Then make the requirements less dumb.”
Delete any part or process you can – “You may have to add them back later. In fact, if you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you didn’t delete enough.”
Removing parts from a product is great DFM as you keep it cheaper, make it simpler, and reduce some quality risks. The same for processes, as fewer equal manufacturing that is easier, faster, and cheaper. Aggressively cutting parts and processes like this without doing thorough testing each time will lead to catastrophic failures, so Musk’s attitude probably increases those risks, but it also spurs improvements, too.
- Simplify and optimize – “This should come after step two. A common mistake is to simplify and optimize a part or a process that should not exist.”
This is not a new concept, merely one that he has learned over the years. It’s an established practice for manufacturers to map the steps of a process and find ways to remove, streamline, and merge steps, and then to improve the remaining ones.
- Accelerate cycle time – “Every process can be speeded up. But only do this after you have followed the first three steps. In the Tesla factory, I mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that I later realized should have been deleted.”
Toyota has been working this way for 50 years so it isn’t a new concept, and it’s proven to be effective in auto manufacturing. Musk eventually followed the right path with this point.
Automate – “That comes last. The big mistake in Nevada and at Fremont was that I began by trying to automate every step. We should have waited until all the requirements had been questioned, parts and processes deleted, and the bugs were shaken out.” There are logical phases for automating over time: First, try to get the machines to do part transformation and automatic unloading, the latter is usually not very high-tech. Then implement, automatic loading which is a lot higher tech because it requires more ‘intelligence’ from the machine that needs to recognise and grab parts and position them accurately. It’s evident that jumping to the higher-tech process before mastering the lower-tech one, as Musk did, doesn’t make sense. (13:24)
The ‘Idiot Index’.
This might be less provocatively named as ‘the waste index’ and in it, Musk looks at the full design of a product and compares the full cost of the BOM to the cost of the raw materials that go into the product. In aerospace, the cost of parts vs raw materials might be 1-100 because the parts are specially made. He used the idiot index to approximate the amount of waste and then this figure is used in steps 2 and 3 of the algorithm, where they decide if the part is needed at all or if it can be simplified or made better somehow. For example, the production method of a part might be found to be somewhat wasteful and it could be made in a different way to save on costs while providing the same results. If a part has a high idiot index, Musk will challenge his designers to make it 10x cheaper, for example, and this forces them to consider new ways to do things. (23:44)
Using knowledge of material science to make revolutionary decisions.
Musk is well-educated in material science and, using point one of his algorithm questioned the use of certain materials in order to drive improvements. For example, at SpaceX, carbon fiber was used for some parts, but it’s expensive and difficult to work with. Musk suggested replacing it with stainless steel, but people were surprised because that’s a heavier material. He challenged engineers to ‘run the numbers.’ Even fairly thin stainless steel is strong at low temperatures, such as the storage temperature for the rocket fuel, and it also perhaps didn’t need a heat shield for re-entry, so his engineers built and tested prototypes to confirm that in this case it could be used as a replacement for carbon fiber, even though using carbon fiber was considered the norm for the industry. His determination to question requirements leads to revolutionary choices being made like this that fly in the face of industry norms. (25:44)
The cyber truck’s stainless steel body.
Musk determined that the new cyber truck’s body could be made from stainless steel which provides all of its structural strength without the need for an internal chassis, etc, that are traditionally used to keep a vehicle together and give it strength.
Because the body was providing the vehicle’s strength it had to be angular (as a traditional chassis that you don’t see under external shaped panels is), which is a revolutionary (and very much a love-hate) vehicle design. Most of the Tesla design studio did not like the new design, but a portion of the market is asking for it, and even 5-10% of the market who like your truck design and is calling for it, plus some other interested customers, is enough to sustain an automotive factory and make a lot of money (plus interested customers must put down a deposit which is a lot of money upfront to get production going). You don’t need half of the market, so a risky design that strongly appeals to a select few is workable. (27:31)
Changing how die casting is used in automotive manufacturing perhaps forever.
Musk examined a toy version of a Tesla car, pulled it apart, and discovered that the underbody was all die-cast in one piece. True to form, he questioned if that could be done for full-size vehicles as it would reduce the number of parts required, reduce the welding required thereby simplifying processes, and also reduce waste. Plans are in place to create 6,000 and 9,000-ton dies that can be used to cast underbodies for Tesla cars and trucks, and this could revolutionize the way automakers do things. This is great DFM as the product is being simplified and providing cost and other benefits and is also typical of Musk’s approach of challenging the usual way of things. (30:30)
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