Where are the flying cars we were promised?

A masochistic manufacturing odyssey

We’ve got smartphones with zillion times more computing power than the Saturn V rocket. So why do flying cars, space hotels, and robot butlers still seem so… distant? (spoilers: they aren’t).

There are some incredible inventions, that if successfully scaled could fundamentally transform civilization. Autonomous planes that reach rural airports, and flying taxis that reach dense city centres. Electric boats that respect sea life, trailer-mounted fission plants that respect oil in the ground, and robotic pizza chefs that respect… everything good in this world. 

So where are they? Where’s our Midcentury Modern Rosie the robot that repairs impossibly dangerous infrastructure and serves ice cream?

"I seismically-proofed your house too." Credit: The Jetsons. Hanna-Barbara Productions

What is it… Patent litigation? Sure. Incumbent moatsmanship? Of course. The deep state’s subversion of Nicola Tesla’s IP? Okay wow, easy turbo. First Resonance’s thesis asserts that groundbreaking hardware is relatively easy to invent, but extremely hard to manufacture at scale. Why?

Though inventing an advanced machine requires engineering excellence, advanced manufacturing requires a certain… je ne sais quoi. Huh? 

When the Tesla Model 3 ramped up, Elon famously doom-tweeted about “production hell” and slept on the factory floor to make the point that building a new product is… really hard, even for him. When the Model Y launched, Elon proclaimed: “it’s probably a factor of 10 harder to design a manufacturing system for a rocket than to design the rocket. For cars it’s maybe 100 times harder.” Within the first 4 minutes of the pod, giant stogie in hand, Elon proclaimed to Joe Rogan, “I cannot emphasize enough how hard production is relative to design… manufacturing is somewhere between 100 and 1000 times harder than building a prototype”... and a classic “...woah” reply from Joe.

In Tesla’s 2016 Shareholder Meeting, Elon envisioned first-principles production: “Design a factory like you’d design an advanced computer… with a potential for improvement a factor of 10 greater than the potential on the car side.” If the factory holds orders of magnitude treasures of savings relative to the marginal fractions scraped off a product’s design, why don’t more companies do it? Managing facilities, staffing, capital equipment, tooling, procurement operations, warehousing, food trucks, logistics, information systems, yoga studios, regulators, all in unified harmony is the most complex, capital-intensive endeavor known to mankind. That’s why. Climbing out of production hell requires literal extraordinary engineering excellence.

This brings us to manufacturing engineers, oompa loompa wizards of industry with less singing. They’re tasked to design frictionless production lines and write unambiguous, work instructions that build flawless hardware. Have you ever considered how difficult it is to write clear instructions? Recall the Sunday you’d spent assembling that strinne green-striped TJENESTE sofabruuutal. But first, let’s build a prototype worth believing in!

Manifesting a vision on paper (aka CAD, computer aided design) to actualized prototype is a journey in itself. New Product Introduction requires countless design reviews, work instruction approvals, supplier onboards, setup fees, empty promises of vacation, and purchase order approvals, until the team has finally completed prototype serial #1! Congratulations! It’s an abysmal failure. To everyone’s (and no one’s) surprise, a several critical components failed, but unbeknownst to news media that’s the process for collecting invaluable data. An exhaustively researched debriefing held by the quality team vigorously articulated  “all the ways in which you’re an idiot who should consider better life choices.” Keep reminding yourself, feedback is a gift. We can do so much bette! Let go that twisting sensation in the gut, your crushed hopes and dreams will return… eventually…

The non-trivial, woefully under-appreciated art form of pivoting from prototype to scaled manufacturing is a delicately choreographed nightmare of pure chaos.

Engineers sharpen their pencils: revise components, update bills of material, redline procedures while founders numb their wounded pride and scrape together the cash at another attempt. 

A few more iterations of this self-sacrificial ritual, and the team finally manifests a working prototype—a masterpiece! It’s time to post some spicy content on social, raise more cash, and really get to work building a batch of these big beautiful things for actual, paying customers! And that’s when things start to get weird…

It’s at this point most projects have gloriously burned to the ground. [insert jarring stat about the % of startups that fail - ok it’s 98.5%. The non-trivial, woefully under-appreciated art form of pivoting from prototype to scaled manufacturing is a delicately choreographed nightmare of pure chaos.

Everyone on this journey must be willing to be excited af to trek through their own personal, fiery rites of passage:

Engineers meticulously (re-)design parts, assemblies, and procedures.

Planners carefully schedule work orders amidst shifting constraints.

Supplier quality engineers bravely scour the planet vetting suppliers.

Buyers tirelessly source parts optimized for cost, quality and delivery.

Supervisors diligently hire, train, and manage shifts of skilled technicians.

Receiving inspectors grant access to rivers of parts into inventory.

Material handlers gracefully kit and deliver components to the shop floor.

Technicians cut, cast, form, grind, fasten, weld, stamp, and assemble metal (+collect obscene amounts of data).

Quality engineers scrupulously test and validate conformance to specification.

Accountants… count.

All of the above must be prolifically documented because all of this happens under the vigorous oversight of auditors and bureaucrats who’ve virtuously pledged to protect the safety of all human lives. Whew! And by the way everyone is an elite skilled professional whose time isn’t cheap, which is why speed to market is a literal sprint/marathon against cash burn from investors adorning $2,500 exotic llama sweaters.. 

The struggle is “manufacturability,” the art of designing products to be made with high quality at low cost. It’s an age-old industrial problem of misaligned incentives between design Responsible Engineers and Manufacturing Engineers. The former optimizes for strength, durability, and precision while the latter optimizes for efficiency, reliability, and scale. 

Some ethereal, physics-defying, 90.00001-degree Inconel brackets might not be machinable. Mistakes happen, material is scrapped, and time is wasted just trying. Some of the best-designed inventions may not be manufacturable if a single part struggles. Manufacturability is the gradual convergence between the drawing board and the factory floor. Try, and try again, ^n.

Every technology, though virtuous at inception, becomes gradually obsolete by the evolving world around it. Elon, a master of recognizing this pattern... realized legacy Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software was simply not designed to manage his ambitions.

Engineers re-sharpen their pencils: and re-iterate designs, but with production going, they’ll now be injecting those changes directly into the flow of production, “swapping engines on a flying plane” as they say. Cutovers happen to work in progress, to supplier orders, and to parts on the shelf. It’s hysteric and a little insane. Like seriously, who signs up for this #@!$!? How could a startup possibly overcome such ridiculous odds? How (and why) would an established manufacturer ever steer into the current of such inertia?

Every technology, though virtuous at inception, becomes gradually obsolete by the evolving world around it. Elon, a master of recognizing this pattern in automotive and aerospace, realized legacy Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software was simply not designed to manage his ambitions.

Instead of repeating the decisions of a generation of Fortune 500 execs, Elon birthed Warpdrive (just “Warp” to it friends and fam): a first principles, integrated software platform specifically designed to scale new hardware. Used (in different variants) by both Tesla and SpaceX, Warp is a suite of tools that forms order from chaos, accelerates the manufacturability convergence problem, and profoundly redefines the physics of modern manufacturing.

Such a system relies on these main tenets:

  • Frictionless user experience - improving the quality of life for people doing the real work, accelerates everything.
  • “Agile” hardware manufacturing: Embracing design changes gracefully into production enables version upgrades like it’s software.
  • Interconnected data model: systematically linking supply chain to production  guarantees collab, its data-exhaust forms the backbone of all managerial decisions.
  • Radical traceability - telling the manufacturing story with data reveals waste and is the path to enlightenment. Also the as-built BOM gets certified by auditors.
  • Open kimono back-end: public API’s let hackers mod some fresh apps, or hook it up to other software and unlock creative, synergistic functionality.

The inability of legacy information systems to manage the complex, dynamic forces of advanced manufacturing is why Western manufacturing has been in decline since the Cold War. Transportation, energy, infrastructure, space, defense, literally any complex machine, has not materially innovated since America transitioned to services, consumed Chinese goods, and forgot how to do hard things.

The acolytes who’ve touched Warp’s genius know how manufacturing software can radically accelerate their hardware ambitions.

The world is going through a dramatic shift: a post-pandemic regionalization of manufacturing (plus a rad spiritual transformation). According to a manufacturing renaissance study: $4.6 trillion in global trade could shift regions over the next five years. In their analysis, “US manufacturing companies that successfully restructure their supply chains to boost local production will have to make simultaneous changes on many fronts.” There will be continued pressure for manufacturers to be more digital, skillful, resilient, and sustainable. “Doing nothing may not be an option.”

A growing diaspora of Elon alumni are smashing the manufacturing zeitgeist; re-inventing industries on their path to transforming the world (+ Solar System). Builders cannot brute force another Apollo, but the conditions are ripe for mind-blowing innovation. The acolytes who’ve touched Warp’s genius know how manufacturing software can radically accelerate their hardware ambitions. Liberated from legacy ERPs’ rigid architecture, prolonged implementations, and eye-watering licensing fees, this next generation of innovators will bring humanity toward the nostalgic, post-war sci-fi visions of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein.

Closer than... 60 years away? Credit: Arthur Radebaugh

The understated importance of Warpdrive to Tesla and SpaceX’s success is an untold story. If our thesis is correct, and countless inventions reach the mass market, we’ll soon be cruising around in electric flying cars, serving up hot pizza and chocolate ice cream from the dashboard, and oh what a glorious life that will be.