Are your products more complex — or less complex — than a fighter jet that flies at 500 miles per hour?
In a unique joint venture, Textron and a startup called AirLand Enterprises got together to try to design and fly a new jet in less than two years. It was a radically-accelerated product development process for Textron, the $13 billion manufacturing conglomerate based in Rhode Island, which makes Cessna airplanes, armored vehicles, and E-Z-GO golf carts. But the goal was to dive into a market niche that no one else was occupying.
“We felt the high end of the military jet market was completely saturated, with very expensive aircraft like the F-18 and the Eurofighter,” says Bill Anderson, who headed up the JV, known as Textron AirLand. “And at the low end of the market, you have UAVs and turboprops for tasks like border patrol. In between, there’s really not much, and what’s being sold is very old. We think the global market for an aircraft like the Scorpion is in the billions of dollars.”
So Textron AirLand began working in complete secrecy on a new plane eventually dubbed the Scorpion. Anderson says the objective was to build a plane not in response to a government spec, but to meet what it saw as an unfilled market need for a “capable, versatile, affordable tactical aircraft that can perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, and strike when necessary.” Textron has estimated the Scorpion’s price at under $20 million (compared with about $60 million for a speedier and more sophisticated F-18 Hornet). But another key number is the cost for an hour of flight time, which Anderson estimates at about $3,000 an hour, compared with $15,000 or more for high-end fighters.
The Scorpion program began in January 2012, and the prototype first took to the air in December 2013. Textron AirLand says they could begin production in 2015 — but the big focus now is signing some customer contracts.
We asked Anderson and chief engineer Dale Tutt to lay out the 10 most important things they learned from building the Scorpion aircraft that other companies can use to throttle up their own innovation.
- Set an audacious goal that energizes people. At the start of the project, Anderson told the assembled team members that the goal was to get the Scorpion flying within two years. “You could kind of feel the collective question: ‘Are you kidding?’” recalls Tutt. “But the team was all in. We set up all of our milestones to support that.”
- Blend people. The Scorpion team was a mix of recent college graduates, employees from Textron’s Cessna division, and about 80 percent short-term contractors. Bringing in engineers from outside Textron “brought some fresh ideas to the team,” Tutt says.
- Don’t ask people to juggle several projects simultaneously. It was important to have people focused on solely the Scorpion, Tutt says, and not shifting back and forth between several different things.
- Minimize meetings. The team had a one-hour weekly status meeting in which team leaders offered a quick update on what they were working on, and there were two other 15-minute meetings each week to tackle priorities and problems. “There’s the myth that if you have enough coordination meetings, everyone is coordinating,” Tutt says. “The reality is that everyone is just in meetings.”
- Use existing components whenever possible. Tutt says the team easily cut a year off their product development cycle by using available parts. The Scorpion uses two Honeywell jet engines, for example. And the team occasionally adjusted their design to accommodate off-the-shelf parts. When it was clear that an existing ejection seat from Martin-Baker wouldn’t fit in the cockpit, Anderson says the team realized “it would’ve been a year and a half and $100 million to get them to modify it. But if we gave them a few extra inches of room around the seat, it would work. So we gave them the extra inches.”
- Get close.The Scorpion team found a building where everyone could work together in the same place. “We had engineers and final assembly all in the same building,” says Anderson. “You don’t want a question to require an e-mail or a phone call to a person in another building. If a fabricator or assembly person had a problem, they knew where the engineers sat. They could walk in and tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘Your design isn’t working. I need help.’”
- Get comfortable with ambiguity. Team leaders needed to be comfortable “making decisions with ambiguity and taking smart risks,” Anderson says. When you’re moving fast, “you don’t have 100 percent of the perfect information you might ordinarily like before making a decision.” He chose team members with that criteria in mind. There’s a reason to keep secrets. Everyone on the team signed a non-disclosure agreement, contractors understood they were expected to be tight-lipped, and the project had a code name that wasn’t easy to remember. “Secrecy was a competitive advantage,” Anderson says, “allowing us to bring a product to market that nobody expected.”
- Focus on what is getting bogged down. Anderson and Tutt tried to identify areas that were lagging before a particular system or component could slow down the overall progress of the project. “Sometimes you need to reassign people to help, and other times it was just a matter of asking, ‘What’s holding you up?’ A lot of times you find someone waiting for a decision in another area that hasn’t been made.”
- Moving fast keeps costs down. “We could have done this in five or 10 years, but then you’re just driving costs through the roof,” Anderson says. “The big deal is that moving fast saved us a lot of money, and it will save the customers in the end tremendous amounts of money.”
More: The Discovery Channel produced this video about the Scorpion’s creation and first test flight.