In a great interview with Gazeta Wyborcza Bohdan Oppenheim (world class specialist in Lean for Systems Engineering) gives a fantastic overview of the origin of SpaceX success. Back in the 60s the aerospace industry was booming in the US but gradually it caught so much bureaucratic fat that eventually became highly inefficient. Three corporations: Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman split major contracts among themselves and started to subcontract to smaller companies, who then subcontracted them further on. Monstrous supply chain made it impossible to implement changes, efficiency, innovation as they all required hectic paper trail and dynamic decision making. Eventually the situation resulted in the space shuttle Columbia disaster and closure of the space shuttle program. SpaceX does not subcontract. The company has only 3000 employees and only one production facility. SpaceX only buys metal sheets, wires, and chips. All the rest is built by its own engineers. And the engineering process is quite different to what is happening in large corporations. First of all, the lead engineers are not only responsible for design of particular components but also need to ensure that the component will fit in perfectly into the whole system. It all happens within a process of negotiations and working out a compromise that eventually to the best solution possible. “In SpaceX systems engineering is a the engineering of perfection”, says Oppenheim. Another advantage is that the development process from idea, through project, prototype, computer analysis and real-life tests is extremely short. In other companies it takes years. In SpaceX most components are 3D-printed and in some cases components are tested and ready within few days. “The whole engine of the spacecraft was 3D-printed in just one day” – explains Oppenheim. Moreover, SpaceX completely automated the process of space flight control. In the Dragon’s control room there are only several people compared to hundreds in NASA’s control facilities. One of the reasons for that is that the Dragon is completely autonomous on the orbit after rockets are disconnected, though it does require assistance in space station docking. Bohdan Oppenheim says that in order to build a similar company in Poland, a lot of support would be needed for young ambitious scientists and engineers. He’s already worked with Polish scientists and says that they are very talented. What else is needed is building competencies in systems engineering. Unfortunately none of the Polish universities have such a faculty. Certain elements of systems engineering are used in the Polish Space Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Professor Oppenheim is also working on cooperation in that area with the Warsaw Technical University and Military University of Technology. In our opinion, it is just not possible to build such a company as SpaceX in Poland. For a number of reasons. For a start, there is not enough capital and not enough engineers with required experience. However, Polish companies CAN play significant roles in certain niche segments of space exploration. We already have fantastic examples of Polish teams dominating recent University Rover Challenge – not one but 2 Polish teams on the podium!!! And it’s not the first time it has happened so there’s definitely huge amount of talent and drive among Polish technology universities’ students to build world-class vehicles that can explore Mars. It’s only one example of a niche, however important in space exploration, but still, a niche, where Polish engineers and scientists may thrive. There are several more examples like that (programming, graphene, etc.) that may become significant strengths for Polish technology, science and engineering sectors.
Image courtesy of SpaceX