A huge red flag for us is an engineer who can’t admit to mistakes – either his or her mistake or the team’s mistake. Because that’s all we do. We do iterations. You can call them whatever you’d like, but engineering is all about improving on what you just created the moment before.
Iteration failure is not really a failure. It's just something that didn't work and then you try something else that might. The important thing is to fail fast. In our R & D department, which we call “Skunkworks,” we have an environment where there are no rules. I guess if you press me, there's an unspoken rule to not burn the place down. But everything else (within the law) is fair game.
We start with someone proposing a new idea. What do we want to accomplish? This first brainstorming idea is usually not the one that is optimal or in the center of the target. But it becomes our first challenge. Our team might be two people or it might be 10 people, but it seldom gets larger than that. Some of these ideas sound crazy, but we all have to accept that the crazy idea might be possible. Because if it's truly a disruptor, it's going to be something that's different.
In this business, you have to be willing to go through a high amount of iterations that don't go anywhere. It’s paying your dues to get to the one crazy idea that does pay off.
At Stratasys Skunkworks and its Engineering Group, we recently launched an Infinite Build system. Working with the R & D department at Ford, we had the challenge of figuring out how to 3D print large panels for cars. Let’s say you could print a car or truck hood in a day, versus the current 10 days it takes with conventional methods. And so we came up with the idea of building stalactites, where you're either pushing a stalagmite up or a stalactite down. We tried printing a panel at 66 degrees, and then trying it at 45 and then 20 degrees. And then the team finally came up with the idea of building it on the horizontal.
Let’s say you want a 50-millimeter thick, 150-foot long panel – we can print that now. Just as the “infinite” name implies, you could keep building the part as long as you want. It took a lot of effort and a lot of iterations for Skunkworks and then our Engineering Group to get this continuous build system to the point where it’s 99.4% reliable in a package that customers can use and afford. And over time, I’m sure we’ll continue to drive performance up and cost down.
We haven’t fully tested the infinite yet – when we do, we’d expect to face the challenge of the curvature of the earth. Ha!
But as with the birth of most other disruptive technologies, our success was built on the backs of many failures and a lot of great teamwork.