Former SpaceX engineer breaks down the code to successful hardware engineering
Passion, a shared mission and collaboration skills are essential for engineers to be successful, according to Duro Co-founder, Kellan O’Connor. Kellan got his start as a mechanical engineer in space tech. He was drawn to the industry after attending the International Aerospace conference in DC and seeing some of the pioneers of the commercial space industry, such as Elon Musk and Burt Rutan, talk about the future. After grad school, he spent five years in the Propulsion department at SpaceX designing booster engines. This article discusses what life was like in the early days working as a mechanical engineer in space tech. It reviews how hardware engineering has changed with technical advancements and a changing work environment.
The early days as a space tech engineer were fast-paced and experimental
Kellan began his career as a mechanical engineer working on experimental rocket engine hardware at Exquadrum before joining SpaceX. Arriving at the company before SpaceX was as renowned as it is today, Kellan entered an environment that was very entrepreneurial. Everyone was focused on the singular mission of getting a rocket to orbit for the first time. Unlike the aerospace organizations of the past, SpaceX was set up differently; everything was designed, built and tested internally. This structure enabled the engineering teams to iterate much faster and avoid many of the delays that were inherent in a system built on third-party vendor participation.
Day-to-day life at SpaceX primarily involved designing various aspects (e.g. parts, system layout, etc.) of the Falcon 9 booster engine, called Merlin. The startup environment allowed Kellan to gain exposure to different roles across many different disciplines, from design and manufacturing engineering to fluid control systems and structural analysis. While the work was exciting, it also involved a high level of stress. A slight miscalculation could result in mission failures and program setbacks. After a few such setbacks, in 2008, the Falcon 1 rocket became the first privately-developed fully liquid-fueled launch vehicle to go into orbit around the Earth.
Collaboration was, and still is, king
At the time, the Propulsion department at SpaceX comprised 20 – 30 engineers. As a Design Engineer, Kellan collaborated closely with analysis and development engineers. Designs were analyzed in a digital environment which replicated the real world stresses the rocket would be exposed to on its ascent to space. This iterated process eventually transitioned to producing the part or building the assembly before being shipped to the manufacturing team and tested at the SpaceX Testing Facility in Texas. A tight feedback loop, supported by strong partnerships across the various engineering disciplines, helped reduce development timeframes and remove risk.
While the engineering design process overall was efficient, one major inefficiency early on involved the engineering change process. Engineering Change Orders had to be listed out on paper, shared in-person with multiple approvers, and approval signatures had to be written out in order to release any new design revisions. Once SpaceX transitioned to a PLM solution this process improved dramatically, removing the in-person steps and digitizing the paper-based process.
Old inspires the new
Aside from the obvious advancements in collaboration tools, such as messaging and video conferencing, the biggest developments impacting space technology have been the advances in materials science and software. Higher tensile strength steels, new ceramics and carbon fibers allow rockets to be built lighter and stronger. While mechanical engineering techniques are rooted in static principles, these new materials are changing the way engineers approach their job. Greater computing power and memory allow for enhanced systems intelligence, precise tracking of launch and landing sequences, as well as monitoring of the health of the vehicle.
The rapid advancements at SpaceX were largely helped by studying previous design methods and manufacturing processes. Kellan and other SpaceX engineers reviewed old rocket design books describing designs used during the Apollo program. Building on these original ideas with new materials, methods, and software-driven systems allowed for significant improvements.
Future focused hardware organizations should embrace new technologies
While communications tools and materials have evolved since Kellan began his career, many of the fundamentals of engineering remain the same. Collaboration across departments and maintaining a tight feedback loop between design, test and manufacturing teams will always be essential for success. The difference is that now information sharing is even easier with modern software, such as out-of-the-box cloud-native PLM. Engineers in any location can access the latest revision or BOM and don’t have to worry about sending documents back and forth. Organizations should embrace new cloud tools to help hardware engineers be more agile while also learning from the past by reusing designs. Finally, they should follow SpaceX’s example and clearly define their vision for employees to align to.