SpaceX’s Use of Agile Methods

Agile Plus Leadership

The leader of SpaceX, Elon Musk, started his career building software. He has brought ideas from that industry to his companies.

Investment in the Design through Delivery Pipeline

SpaceX has invested a great deal of effort in automating the process of designing and validating through simulation, and delivering the machinery that they build through automation. They use traditional computer-aided design (CAD) tools such as CATIA, but they also invested in an end-to-end 3D modeling system from which they can view and simulate entire assemblies and automatically print parts. Importantly, the software is fast, even when handling complex assemblies, so that engineers do not have to wait, which encourages a rapid iterative design approach.

Rapid Pipeline from Design to Test

To reduce the cost of making parts whose design is always changing, they use 3D printing. This enables the design to evolve without requiring new dies to be fabricated: they literally just print a new design. This is really important because it enables a “red-green” cycle for development — something that is core to an Agile approach. It allows the design to rapidly evolve. One does not wait for a design to be perfect before trying it: one tries it repeatedly and the outcome of each trial — each test — helps the design to converge on perfection much more rapidly than if one tried to perfect it beforehand through analysis.

Reuse to the Limit

The reuse of equipment, methods, and ideas is core to Musk’s approach. Making SpaceX’s vehicles reusable has been a goal of his from early on. As a result, SpaceX is the first to build reusable orbital class rockets, and their Mars vehicle (the Starship) will be reusable. In fact, it is the same vehicle that they will use for lunar missions, and it will replace their current Falcon vehicles for launching satellites, avoiding the need to design and test a completely different vehicle for each kind of mission.

Leadership

Having leadership is essential for achieving big things. As I explain in my articles Agile at Scale Requires a Special Kind of Leadership and Scrum is Very Confused About Leadership, the Agile community does not have good models for leadership. Leadership is what made SpaceX what it is; it is what made Apple what it is; it is what made Amazon what it is. Whenever you see an organization that has done something truly great, there is great leadership behind it.

Chief Product Owner

Elon Musk is the CEO of SpaceX, but SpaceX’s description of Musk says that he “oversees the development and manufacturing of advanced rockets and spacecraft for missions to and beyond Earth orbit.”

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