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Jul 21, 2022
A New Era of Engineering is here
Parikshat Singh

Reusable Rockets & Fusion Reactors - Are We Ready for The Next-Era of Physical Engineering?

A New Era of Engineering is here

I used to wonder what it would have been like to be an engineer working for NASA during The Space Race. Groundbreaking technology, tremendous pace, massive stakes.

We all became engineers to build things that matter - things that help people and push humanity forward. For a long time, it looked like the engineering industry had forgotten this.

At the turn of the last century, we went from the first sustained flight, to metal aircraft, to rockets, to people on the moon in just six decades. In that era, we invented nuclear power and refined it to be safe, created massive cities, and productionised medical machines that have saved millions of lives.

We challenged what we thought was possible, overcame it and created a sense of technology optimism about the future. In the 1960s, people thought flying cars were a certainty. That we'd have cities on the moon and mars. That humanity could engineer and do anything.

Then, for a period, engineering appeared to flatline.

Physical, large-scale engineering faded into the background as software took the limelight. Companies seemed to go from building impossible machines to building slightly bigger, slightly more efficient aeroplanes - and it didn't take us a year, it took us 20. It didn't take hundreds of engineers, it took thousands. It didn't cost us a million to develop, it cost us a billion.

And then, in the 2010s, something strange started to happen. Things began to move again.

It started small. A few new aero companies here, a handful of space-loving billionaires there, and suddenly a whole new wave of aero, space, satellite, clean tech and green tech companies emerged.

We are entering the next era of engineering

Physical Engineering is the Future

In this era, we are going after humanity-defining problems. Today, teams of engineers are solving fusion and sustainable clean energy, and not just energy generation but energy grids. We are solving self-sustaining cities on Mars, we are solving humanoid robotics, and we are solving clean air travel.

Behind each company is a team of engineers rethinking old assumptions. Why build a better aircraft when you could fly supersonic? What if we got really ambitious and tried hypersonic?

And real money is going in. EV companies, modern aero companies, and fusion companies are raising billions, not millions. Cleantech is receiving waves of new investment. Not every one of these companies will succeed, nor does every company need to, but the ones that do thrive are already re-defining our industry and, by extension, our future.

Talented engineers, working with significant funding on real technology. And it's not one or two companies in isolation, it's hundreds.

A new wave of engineering companies is here

New wave of engineering companies

This is not just a short-term blip - this is a seismic and permanent wave that's getting bigger. The amount of value to be created is vast, the problems to fix are urgent, and the critical mass of money needed has already been crossed. We're living at the start of a whole new era of engineering, and this next era may come to define who we are.

The big question is - Why did things stall before, and how are we going faster now?

It's not just new companies - it's a whole new approach to doing engineering

The core thing the new age companies uniquely understand is that this is a systems design problem, not a component design problem.

Rather than take the monolith waterfall "let's plan for the next 20 years and hope nothing will change” line, they know they need to take it one step at a time. Engineering system's complexity is too high. There are too many coupled interactions, too much emergent behaviour, and too many supply chain issues that can't be predicted.

Today the complexity is not in the components but in the overall system. Today's great products don't need 100 brilliant but siloed engineers but one great, highly integrated team.

As many people have spotted, this is precisely the transition software engineering underwent before designing today's massive-scale systems. Engineering is taking the lessons learned about developing software at scale and bringing it to building hardware.

Engineering now values speed and agility

Agile may be the most overused term in new-engineering. Agile does not mean trying to do waterfall faster, and hiring a scrum master does not mean you've nailed agile.

Agile means one thing - engineering in a more iterative manner - lots of smaller cycles that build on each other rather than one decade-long cycle.

One of the best out there is SpaceX.

Iterative Design

It's this fast, iterative way of engineering that is at the core of new-age engineering companies.

Agile hardware iteration loops

Agile loops that build on the learnings of the last loop are SpaceX's secret ingredient.

Many smaller loops beat one big, well-thought-out loop

Many smaller loops beat one big, well-thought-out loop.

If you are an engineer that cares about building the future, you really need to read the long form:

SpaceX Systems Engineering Handbook.pdf

But… teams are drowning in change management hell

It's not all sunshine and rainbows. Agile engineering comes down to one thing - the speed of an engineering iteration. The faster you iterate, the quicker you learn, test, validate and verify. The team that iterates the fastest in the market always wins.

Complex data management and synchronisation

Today the complexity is in the system. The data for one system is fragmented across hundreds or thousands of engineering models - in Excel, Python, MATLAB, and proprietary simulation, as well as our CAD models.

Complexity scales exponentially in today's systems

The real problem is data consistency and communication

As parameters change in one place, it takes a long time for them to propagate throughout the engineering team, which means that for most of the time engineers are working with out-of-data data and don't even realise it.

Where is the latest torque value, dry mass assumption, or cost of Hydrogen value? Who owns it, in which team, in which office? Do you reach out to the team lead, or just blanket email the team for speed?

What do you do until you get that data - make an educated guess? Are there other educated guesses you've made? Do other people need access to your model data? Who? Can you give them your data if you're not confident in your assumptions?

35% of every engineering interaction is taken up by teams finding the latest data, updating their models with the data, and fixing mistakes caused by out-of-date data. This is one of the most significant and most pressing problems yet to be solved in the industry.

Slow change propagation

The shocking truth - modern engineering collaboration often happens via email, on Microsoft Teams, and in in-person design review meetings. Engineers that are literally designing the future have no fit-for-purpose collaboration tools.

Engineers deserve better.

Flow Engineering's mission is to accelerate all engineering projects globally

Our mission is to help engineering teams at the cutting edge to go faster. We want to help engineers take 2 years off the timeline for fusion, 18 months off the next major launch vehicle in development, and 20% of the costs off the next major carbon reduction project.

Synchronised data communication

We're doing this by building Flow - the first engineering data platform built for agile engineering teams. Flow helps teams stay integrated with the correct data, regardless of which tool they are working in.

Flow is just getting going. If you'd like to be part of our journey or learn more, we'd love to hear from you.

If you want to learn more, please join our mailing list below, message me on Linkedin, or email me directly.

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