Problem Solving: What We Can All Learn From Elon Musk

From Space X, to Tesla, and Solar City, innovator Elon Musk has proven to be a leader in each specific industry that he dives into pushing the boundaries of the status quo.  Most recently I’ve been following the Space X journey and have noticed there are some trademarks of how he approaches problems that are especially poignant to engineering companies.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.  This is the antithesis of how he operates his companies.  Space X is a particularly good example of this.  Rethinking the way in which equipment is launched into space is a monumental achievement.  Many people didn’t believe that designing a rocket that could launch a capsule, then re-land back on earth, and perform this task repetitively was possible.  However, by visualizing the goal he wanted to achieve without being discouraged by what the current industry standards were, inhibitions didn’t cloud his vision of what was possible.  This allowed creativity to flourish with the end result being an innovative new design that has seen multiple successful launches and re-entries.

This approach to problem solving draws parallels in many other industries and to most engineering design challenges.  Most engineers, myself included, will take comfort in repeating a design that has been proven by others and is commonly used in the industry.  However, the benefits of taking a step back and looking at a problem with a fresh perspective is something we should all strive to do on a regular basis.  While the results may not equate to a dramatic new innovation, you will at the very least validate your current thought process.

The devil is in the details.  Part of Space X and Telsa’s success can be attributed to the control that each company has over every minute detail of their production.  From the programming of the control systems that provide the rocket guidance systems to friction stir welding aluminum panels, all segments of production are completed in-house.  The result is that processes can be continually changed and optimized based on experimentation with instantaneous feedback.  This vertical integration, while inherently risky, also allows for a meticulous level of quality control and results in innovative techniques.

While most companies do not have the resources to bring all services under one roof, this doesn’t mean that you need to follow this model literally.  A more collaborative approach with your partners (versus a combative model) can open the communication channels for a productive feedback loop benefiting all parties.

There are many more approaches that entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk have utilized to enable success.  Challenging the norm and vertical integration are just two that peaked my interest given the parallels that can be drawn to the engineering in the oil and gas industry.

 

Written by: Damian Bransby-Williams, P.Eng.