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"Make the requirements less dumb"

Image credit Everyday Astronaut

Elon Musk explains his engineering philosophy, and I love it.

  1. "Make the requirements less dumb." The requirements are definitely dumb; it does not matter who gave them to you. He notes that it’s particularly dangerous if an intelligent person gives you the requirements, as you may not question the requirements enough. “Everyone’s wrong. No matter who you are, everyone is wrong some of the time.” He further notes that “all designs are wrong, it’s just a matter of how wrong.”

  2. "Try very hard to delete the part or process." If parts are not being added back into the design at least 10% of the time, not enough parts are being deleted. Musk noted that the bias tends to be very strongly toward “let’s add this part or process step in case we need it.” Additionally, each required part and process must come from a name, not a department, as a department cannot be asked why a requirement exists, but a person can.

  3. "Simplify and optimize the design." This is step three as the most common error of a smart engineer is to optimize something that should not exist.

  4. "Accelerate cycle time." Musk states “you’re moving too slowly, go faster! But don’t go faster until you’ve worked on the other three things first.”

  5. "Automate." An important part of this is to remove in-process testing after the problems have been diagnosed; if a product is reaching the end of a production line with a high acceptance rate, there is no need for in-process testing.

In the source video from Everyday Astronaut, Musk says that Design is overrated and Manufacturing is underrated.

This philosophy is uncommon in the product design world. Everyone is fascinated by 'good design' but not focused on the engineering and manufacturing that makes good designs a reality.

Let's say you come up with a new product idea.

First…Make the Requirements less Dumb.

Is the product even worth selling? If the idea is bad (nobody wants it) then no amount of marketing will sell it. Do you have a PRD (Product Requirements Document)? Is it right? Is it comprehensive? Is it overkill?

Have you defined requirements in a way that ties the hands of your design team? Careful not to make a list of Design Specs when you really want a list of Product Requirements.

Many requirements are just made up on the fly, and Requirement creep is a real problem.

Often this means having a tough conversation where we call your baby ugly.

Second…Try to delete part of the process.

This is a hard one. In design and engineering new products, we like to have a development framework so we don't miss obvious things. My design checklists used to be excessively comprehensive, and would sometimes slow things down, but I've oscillated like a pendulum.

I want to find a delicate balance between process and creative energy. Too much process will bog down the team. Not enough process will lead to inconsistent results. Especially as new team members come onboard, and projects are underway.

Follow the process, but be smart, and ignore it when it doesn't work.

Third...Simplify and optimize the design you've got.

All the features that you think are necessary, get rid of them.

Strip the product down to it's bare essentials.

After you've stripped the design to the basics, you now have something that's easier to build and test.

Instead of a four-piece overmolded housing, can you get away with a two-piece clamshell?

Fourth...Build Faster

Build faster. 99% of the time, that means actually build prototypes...don't think about the Solidworks feature tree. Most of the time wasted as a designer or engineer is trying to build the 'perfect' design, the first time.

Sometimes, we need to go slow to go fast.

Prototype in digital world to find the flaws.

Simulate. Render.

But even these can be rapidly iterated. Assume that your first design is flawed. Expect that the entire prototype and CAD model will go in the garbage.

Plan to accelerate each iteration. Instead of 2-3 months between prototypes, can we get that to 2-3 weeks, or (gasp) 2-3 days?

Learn to love critiquing and testing your prototypes. Build more prototypes. My favorite line when one of my team asks for my feedback/thoughts on a design...

If you can't draw pictures, hire someone that can. If you're slow at CAD, then hire a freelance CAD jockey to make models for you. If your 3D printer is slow, then hire out the work to a service bureau. If you can't think of ideas fast enough, hire a creative design agency to bring a fresh perspective.

Fifth...Automate For designers and engineers, this means reduce the manual labor associated with iterations.

Quoting? Use a tool like to automate RFQs File Output? Use Solidworks Task Scheduler to instantly save out files to various file types.

Manufacturing is harder than design...don't underestimate how many changes will be required to your design during mfg.

Unless you've trained yourself to design perfectly manufacturable parts out of the gate, you're going to spend the vast majority of your working time redesigning, tweaking, and refining the initial idea you had for your concept.

Lean into the tools available. Look for ways to speed up.

This is the craft of Rapid Prototyping!

The days where a designer/engineer can disappear for 2-3 months and come back with a design is largely over.

The future of Product Development is speed, iteration, and insight.

Protolabs can make parts in 1-3 days.

Keep your design efforts no more than 1-3 days, and you can build an iteration every week.

Spend your design dollars on prototypes, not on labor.

You can't possibly outthink every challenge that you'll run into.

Rapid Prototyping is about adapting proven principles of design and engineering in new (faster) ways.

It's exciting.

It's also scary if you've relied on traditional methods of design and prototyping.

But whether you like it or not, it's happening.

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