The company focused on solving the toughest problems early in the design phase with team sprints and then moved to smaller groups for detailed design efforts. They used fast feedback loops in simulation and testing to improve the design before going into production.
This focus on agile development and manufacturing helped Zipline get its unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from design to commercialized and scaled operation across Ghana and Rwanda in less than 18 months, and a final half year in design validation and engineering verification.
“In general, the idea of sprinting resources on a specific problem is something we’re taking from the software world back to the hardware world,” said Devin Williams, senior mechanical engineer on Zipline’s UAV production platform. “One thing we do really well is find the Minimum Viable Product and then prove it in the field.”
Using an agile process allows Zipline to focus on releasing changes to the product that quickly meet customer needs while maintaining high reliability. The San Francisco Bay Area company now has distribution centers in North Carolina and Arkansas, and another in Salt Lake City is in the works and will soon be rolled out in Japan and in new markets across Africa.
Zipline is not alone. From startups to manufacturers with decades of history, companies are turning to agile design, engineering, and manufacturing to create innovative products at a lower cost. Aircraft manufacturer Bye Aerospace has cut the cost of developing an electric aircraft by more than half and accelerated the pace of its prototypes. And Boeing won the TX-Twin-Pilot-Trainer-Jet project with the US Air Force with agile processes.
Overall, the use of agile methods should be a priority for every manufacturer. For aerospace and defense companies whose complex projects typically followed the long time horizons of waterfall development, agile design and development are required to lead the industry into the age of urban air mobility and the future of space exploration.
The evolution of traditional product design
While agile production has its origins in the Kanban method of just-in-time car manufacturing developed at Toyota in the 1940s, the modern agile framework for development was created by programmers in the late 1990s in search of better ways to manufacture refined by software. Rather than creating a “waterfall” development pipeline that includes specific phases like design and testing, agile development focused on creating a working product, the Minimum Viable Product, as early as possible in the process and then iterating the technology. In 2000, a group of 17 developers created the Agile Manifesto, which focused on working software, individuals and interactions, and working with customers.
Over the past decade, agile software development has focused on DevOps – “Development and Operations” – creating the interdisciplinary teams and culture for application development. Likewise, design companies and product manufacturers have learned the lessons of agility and reintegrated them into the manufacturing lifecycle. As a result, manufacturing is now made up of small teams iterating on products, putting real lessons back down the supply chain, and using software tools to accelerate collaboration.
Agile offers advantages in the aerospace and defense industries, known for the complexity of their products and systems. In developing the TX two-seat jet trainer, Boeing committed to developing agile design and manufacturing processes, resulting in half the program cost for the US Air Force, a 75 percent increase in the quality of the first prototype, half the software development time, and an 80 percent reduction the assembly time.
“We took an agile mindset and a block-plan approach to hardware and software integration,” says Paul Niewald, Boeing’s TX program manager. “That’s why we released software every eight weeks and tested it at the system level to validate our requirements. This enabled us to reduce our software effort by 50%.
In the end, the TX went from design to construction of “production representation jets” in three years. This is a huge departure from the initial development of traditional aircraft programs, which use waterfall development in the initial design and development phase and can require a decade of development.
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This content was created by Insights, the custom content division of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by the editorial staff of MIT Technology Review.