Some Thoughts on SMED, EELVs and Lunar Tourism

For a long time in the car world, due to the high setup times inherent in some of their equipment (like the massive multi-ton dies they’d use for panel stamping) and other factors, car manufacturers would use a “batch-and-queue” style manufacturing system. The logic went that since it took a full day sometimes to change from one model to the other (due to for example, needing to say swap dies, remount the new die, and then precision callibrate it) that it made sense to switch models as infrequently as possible. So, if you were producing car models A, B, and C on a given production line, you’d produce all the A’s you think you’d need for a month, then proceed to B’s, then to C’s. The problem is that this is wasteful, takes up a lot of space, increases the odds of damaging goods, and requires a lot of capital to be tied up in intermediate stages of production where it isn’t actually generating revenue. It also depends a lot more on forecasting, computerized inventory, and all sorts of other things that tend not to work very well.

When the Toyota Corporation was getting back on its feet after WWII, they realized that doing things that way was a luxury they couldn’t afford. Most people who know anything about manufacturing have heard the terms Just-in-Time or Lean Manufacturing. With Just-in-Time, the goal is to reduce inventory levels as far as possible, so that production signals from the end customer can tell you when to produce what, instead of trying to guess and forecast, and then end up producing lots of crud that nobody wants to buy. In order to do that though, something had to be done about those huge sheet metal presses. There’s no way you can run on only a few pieces of work in process inventory if it takes a day to switch dies. So Shingo decided to set an audacious goal: he wanted to be able to reduce the setup time for one of those dies from as much as 24-36 hours down to 1 minute. The disturbing thing is that he actually went on to do it. The technique he developed, called Single Minute Exchange of Dies or SMED for short, is one of the key enablers to modern Lean Manufacturing. All of the sudden when swapping from model to model to model only takes about a minute each, you could put that machine back into the main line. You could swap dies between each and every panel if you wanted. You no longer needed to produces weeks and weeks of panels at a time, because you could build precisely what was in demand at that time. In short, it was a really big deal. RLV operators would be well advised to pick up a copy or two of Shingo’s book on the topic and take it to heart. I want to see races in a few years where the turn time for an RLV is dropping below 15 minutes.

So, what the heck does this have to do with space?

The way I think this relates is that it shows that the end goal you are working for can often lead to completely different means. Imagine what had happened if Shingo, like hundreds of other talented industrial engineers at the time had merely settled for the “more realistic” goal of dropping the time of die swaps by 50% or even 1 order of magnitude down to a few hours? He probably would have acheived his goal, but in some ways it might have been just as difficult, and yeilded far less benefit. If it still takes you 2-3 hours to swap dies, you’re still stuck at least producing weeklong batches if not monthlong ones. I think the reason why Shingo was the one who made so much progress so fast in that field wasn’t just because he was a genius, and wasn’t because all the other IE’s in the US were a bunch of knuckle-dragging neanderthals. I think it’s mostly due to the fact that he was actually looking at the problem right. Had any of those other IE’s thought “why couldn’t we switch dies in only a couple of minutes”, I think that they probably would have beat him to the punch. Once you accept the possibility that the goal probably isn’t physically impossible, or even silly, you’re 90% of the way to a solution. The last 10% may be a real bear, but you’re most of the way there once your perspective is right.

Take a look at the EELV program, and even SpaceX. EELV’s goal was to reduce the cost of launching satellites for the military from absolutely obscene to merely ridiculous (ie a 50% drop in price IIRC). So, they tried to make some incremental changes to how they build and operate their vehicles. In some areas they’ve gotten a lot better, but the reality is that they didn’t even acheive the modest goals they set out for themselves. It isn’t that they’re dumb, or malicious, or incompetent. It’s just that they set themselves too easy of a goal, so they didn’t actually have to think outside the same high-cost artillery box that they’ve put themselves in over the years.

SpaceX is doing quite a bit better. They wanted to slash the launch cost by 10x. I think they’ll pull it off. But that’s kind of like cutting time from 24 hours to 2.5 on the sheet metal press. Sure it’s a huge improvement, sure it’ll make a difference, and sure it is possible. But ironically it may actually be more difficult than going even more radical. I think that SpaceX will eventually figure out some recoverability for their launchers. Might even cut the price they charge customers by another 10-20% compared to a fully expendable vehicle. They might even get up to two 9’s of reliability. But if they go for the BFR instead of trying to radically change the Earth-to-Orbit transportation market by going fully reusable…They’re probably going to get their lunch eaten. I mean, they could possibly acquire one of the companies that actually develops a fully reusable, high-flight-rate orbital space transport. But the reality is going to be that if they don’t keep pushing more and more reusability into their Falcon line, it’s going to go obsolete. In fact, I’m not even sure if they can get to there (sufficiently full reusability to maintain competitiveness and marketshare) from the vehicles where they’re starting. Don’t get me wrong. I think in the near term SpaceX is doing something absolutely wonderful. I think it will change a lot of things in the space industry. But since they took the “how much lower cost can we go based on evolutionary improvements on the status quo” approach, they’re already limiting their long-term competitiveness in the ETO transportation market. All it takes is a couple of Shingos to figure out that there’s nothing impossible about making a vehicle that is safe enough, reusable enough, and inexpensive enough to drop the launch price by another order of magnitude from SpaceX in order for that to happen. Perspective can be everything.

Also look at lunar exploration and development. For the longest time, I was thinking about how I could reduce the cost of a lunar mission relative to NASA. SpaceDev provided a good example of this a few months back. They developed a plan where they could get back to the moon for about 1/6th of what NASA is likely to spend, and do so in a manner that is actually more flexible (though not neccessarily more capable). Back when I first did my studies on my Prometheus Downport Project, I was thinking along similar lines. I thought “NASA wants to spend many Dirksens on getting back to the moon and building a base, why couldn’t it be done for a single Dirksen?” So I borrowed some ideas from George Herbert and came up with a kinda crazy scheme involving one-person landers, crashing TLI/Descent stages, some on-orbit assembly, and some lunar surface staging. The problem was the idea wasn’t very practical, and didn’t make any economic sense.

A while back though, I started realizing that the nearest term market for lunar access was probably tourism. And that presents a problem. Futron’s study pointed out that even for really exotic destinations, most people are only willing to fork out a couple of percent of their net worth on a trip. For something like being the next person to walk on the moon, they might even be willing to fork out a fairly substantial portion, but the reality is the number is likely going to be less than 10-20% at the most. The problem is that the number of people with a given level of net worth seems to be exponentially inversely proportional to the level of that worth. While there’s only a handful of people on the earth with a net worth over $10B, there’s a huge number of people with net worths of $100M-1B. So, the reality I started running into is that if you want an individual to be able to buy a lunar ticket, the seat price has to be less than $100M, and probably closer to $20-50M before you’ll even get a single taker. Listen to the sound of crickets chirping over in line to sign up for Space Adventure’s $100M translunar ticket. So the question becomes, how can you get the ticket price for a lunar tourist *in the near-term* down below $50M? Honestly, I’m not 100% sure, but a lot of the ideas I’ve been harping on I think will be part:

  • Reusable, high-flight-rate ETO transportation
  • On-orbit propellant tranfer and storage
  • Reusable translunar transportation with aerobraking
  • Lots of intermediate space tourism markets like suborbital, orbital, and translunar
  • On-orbit refuelable/reusable lunar landers
  • Maybe ISRU

In the long run, ISRU and maybe some form of high Isp transportation like microwave thermal becomes critical if you want to push the price point to the low single-digit millions numbers where you really want to reach if you want to open a large tourism market. But the point I’m trying to make is that if you actually want a lunar transportation system that is economically useful in any sense of the term, building huge welfare queen Shuttle-Derived hardware is never cut it. Not even a low-cost Russian expendable booster infrastructure will work. Only a radical rethink has any chance.

And in the long run, I think it is just such a radical rethink that has the highest possibility of success.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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16 Responses to Some Thoughts on SMED, EELVs and Lunar Tourism

  1. Kelly Starks says:

    Big agree!

    Seen to many folks who are sure you can’t cut launch costs more then maybe 10% without radical new tech (skyhooks, super engines, etc). Yet we’ve done prototpes of craft (DC-X) that could easily 90%-98% of launch costs. Reducing labor costs per flight from about $300 million a flight on Shuttle, to well under $100,000. Eliminating the need for heavy ground support equipment. Turn around times as low as a day.

    What caused the big change resulting in this was just a customer demanding something that (like a airplane) didn’t need the huge custom support facilities, armies of folks, and months of prep time. A craft that could fly at least a couple times a week, with dozens (not tens of thousands) of folks, turning them around in a couple shifts (not a couple months).

    Now you have folks like Griffen who think Shuttle was reaching to far.

    🙁

  2. Anonymous says:

    Don’t count out spacex just yet. They have announced that they will make the merlin 1 regeneratively cooled, so they will be the only company in the US to have a fully reusable high thrust hydrocarbon engine. I was really encouraged by the fact that they will try to improve the merlin 1 first before building the merlin 2.

    They know how to build lightweight reusable tanks. They have off the shelf flight computers and software. Falcon 1 will let them collect valuable experience in reusability.

    All they need to do is to apply all the things they have learned with the falcon 1 and 9 to build a fully reusable VTVL TSTO vehicle.

  3. Ben Reytblat says:

    Hi, Jon,

    I very much agree with most of your points re: SpaceX in this and the previous entries. Elon has seized the current opportunity and is pushing it further than anyone before him – way cool! I very much hope that he stays focused on the ETO segment, and pushes the price of lift as low as it can go – and makes a TON of $$$ in the process.

    Where you and I part ways is that I hope he doesn’t shift focus to other segments. If he does, he’ll be competing with some his best potential customers – the fuel depot, the orbital station, and the translunar hardware and operations companies. I think this would be bad for SpaceX and bad for this entire nascent industry.

    I share your feelings of frustration that the segments beyond ETO and “LEO destinations” are not yet being addressed by anyone serious about cost reduction. If NASA does commit to some of the proposed Challenges (such as the Fuel Depot), I’m pretty sure we might see some new entrants step up to those opportunities in the very near future.

  4. jv says:

    I wonder – given SpaceX’s focus on reusability/refurbishability – What kind of design could be used for such heavy rocket as BFR? Flyback Energia?

  5. Juan Suros says:

    jv-

    For an example of past BFR ideas, search for the original “sea dragon” design studies at the ntrs.nasa.gov site. They are available as PDFs.

    The BFR will probably have to use something like the strategy proposed for landing the (reusable) first stage of the sea dragon.

  6. Jon Goff says:

    Anonymous,
    I’m not counting them out by any stretch of the imagination. And I am encouraged that they’re at least planning on doing a regen cooled version of the Merlin 1 first. I’m just hoping that before they spend too much more money on things for the BFR that they’ll look at the market and decide to wait a bit. They’ve got much better things to be focused on in the near and medium term than HLVs.

    That said, I’m not so sure about your comment:
    All they need to do is to apply all the things they have learned with the falcon 1 and 9 to build a fully reusable VTVL TSTO vehicle.

    It’s not quite as easy as that. Not that they couldn’t (or shouldn’t) head in that direction if they wanted to, just there are a lot of things like throttleable engines, landing gear, etc that they don’t need for Falcon 1 and 9 that they will need for a VTVL TSTO RLV. I know I sound biased here, but I think they’d be best served (if they wanted to go down that path) to either buy out one of the more succesful suborbital firms (whoever that may be at that point), or do a joint development project with them.

    They definitely have some applicable knowledge and experience, just not all of it.

    ~Jon

  7. Jon Goff says:

    Ben,
    Where you and I part ways is that I hope he doesn’t shift focus to other segments. If he does, he’ll be competing with some his best potential customers – the fuel depot, the orbital station, and the translunar hardware and operations companies. I think this would be bad for SpaceX and bad for this entire nascent industry.

    I’m not sure that’s neccessarily true. When I was talking about them focusing on developing those other technologies, I didn’t mean that they would then be the sole operator of every segment of the cislunar transportation economy. In fact a good method might be for them to develop some of those technologies, and then license the IP to others to actually build the operational systems. Or they could spin-off companies and keep some share of them. Or they could provide companies trying to develop those technologies some seed money–basically subsidizing their customers to help grow future markets.

    I’m not really sure which approach makes the most business sense. I was just trying to point out that SpaceX has a bunch to gain from seeing those supporting technologies developed and fielded. And that if they are particularly clever they can find a way to get other people to help pay some of the development costs, grow their launch market, and also profit from those technologies all at the same time.

    ~Jon

  8. Ben Reytblat says:

    Hi, Jon,

    It would indeed be wonderful if SpaceX decided to seed and nurture their potential customers and business partners in the ways you list. Both for the industry and for SpaceX.

    Heck, if I thought the capital raising process could be speeded up that way, I’d give it a shot myself.

    🙂 Elon, what do you think? 🙂

  9. Iain McClatchie says:

    As you say, Jon, perspective can be everything.

    There was a very, very large market for cars before Shingo figured out how to change dies quickly. There is not, now, a very large ETO market. It is very important that SpaceX not try to develop new technologies to improve their marginal costs right now. It is much more important that they get some experience launching rockets, so that they can learn what actually costs money.

    As SpaceX gets some credibility and the change in prices becomes relevant to a larger segment of the market, the market will change. I presume, as do you, that the market will grow. I presume, as I’m not sure you do, that the change will take time, maybe a decade, maybe two.

    During that change, SpaceX will be right there, talking and working with the customers who are realizing what they can do with the new cost structure. That exposure is invaluable, because the next step (which happens in 2025 perhaps) is to build a ETO transport that serves those new needs. I claim you cannot guess well enough what the new customers will need, because they don’t even know yet.

    All this many-orders-of-magnitude stuff is just a distraction from real work. If LiftPort wants to research how to build nanotube tapes, good for them, there is a big market now for strong fiberous stuff. But doing engineering on the climbers is just a waste of time right now. Fine for universities, fine for hobbyists, but don’t tell me it’s a commercial endeavor.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I sincerely doubt SpaceX will drop costs compared
    even to the pegasus, by muchat all.

    Falcon is doing nothing new, and little better then
    the majors are doing now.

    Falcon still uses a big expensive range, including radars, camera’s, safety people.

    Falcon still throws away everything, and this won’t get
    better. None of that recovery gear will work.
    If SpaceX thought it would work it’d be being flight tested.

    the falcon has no intact abort or recovery modes.

    the falcon electronics aren’t cheaper, they just spend the money in other areas.

  11. Pete says:

    I definitely agree with regard to SpaceX, I have just come to the conclusion that Bigelow is in much the same boat. SpaceX is the chicken, Bigelow the egg leading to a not so virtuous circle of high cost BFR&P (rocket & payload). It is probably near essential that this problem be attacked from both ends at once.

    In the traditional fashion Bigelow are developing one piece twenty ton habitat modules that will be wedded in cost and design to the twenty ton payload ELVs that will launch them. Low cost reusable space transports and the like will first be developed at much smaller scale, and long before larger such designs are developed.

    The Shingo approach would be for Bigelow to design for orbital assembly from small payloads now so that they could take advantage of the smaller lower cost launch vehicles as they get developed. Not doing so will likely result in their lunch being eaten and doing so now would create a much larger market pull for the development of such low cost space transports. A market pull which should never have been absent in the first place.

    There seems to be no shortage of would be low cost space transport developers, unfortunately the same is not true for low cost space settlement developers, lots of chicken and no egg, hence the latter is on the critical path.

  12. Jon Goff says:

    Anonymous,
    I sincerely doubt SpaceX will drop costs compared even to the pegasus, by much at all.

    I don’t know about that. Pegasus is a ridiculously expensive bird, SpaceX shouldn’t have much trouble beating it’s price handily.

    Falcon is doing nothing new, and little better then the majors are doing now.

    There is still room for improvement, but I think they’ve done a much better job than the majors. Their system uses a lot less people to operate, took less people to design and develop, and was probably a lot cheaper to develop too.

    Falcon still uses a big expensive range, including radars, camera’s, safety people.

    While that’s true, their range infrastructure is a lot leaner. The problem is that there are only so many ranges you can launch an ELV out of due to legal requirements. There are ways to improve this situation, but all of them will take a lot of time. For dealing with how the world actually is, I think they’re doing a good job.

    Falcon still throws away everything, and this won’t get better. None of that recovery gear will work.

    That’s just opinion. I’d really be surprised if they weren’t able to recover anything. Pressurized tanks are amazingly tough, and reusing and refurbishing a liquid fueled stage should be a lot more economical than refurbishing a solid fueled one. Or do you have some insider info that we dont?

    If SpaceX thought it would work it’d be being flight tested.

    Well, that’s not neccessarily true at all. When range fees end up being very expensive, it tends to make some tests uneconomical. The thing is that they can get the recovery data after each and every flight. They probably won’t get it right on the first or second or third try. I think there might have been better ways of doing this, and I personally would have wanted it flight tested, but the reality is that the way they’re going about it isn’t really that unreasonable.

    the falcon has no intact abort or recovery modes.

    The vehicle itself doesn’t, but if you had a cargo or crew capsule on top, it would be possible to abort that…and honestly, the first stage probably can be recovered in an aborted launch. It isn’t perfect, and I sure wouldn’t design it that way, but I think you’re being overly harsh.

    ~Jon

  13. Jon Goff says:

    Iain,
    There was a very, very large market for cars before Shingo figured out how to change dies quickly.

    I think you missed the point I was trying to make with the Shingo reference. I was only trying to point out that the reason why Shingo succeeded, in spite of the fact that there were more cars being made in the US, with more Industrial Engineers working on improving efficiency, was that he had the right perspective. The IE’s in the US took the idea that dies had to take dozens of hours to switch out as an axiom, and found creative ways of dealing with those long lead times. Even down to making all sorts of equations to figure out how many parts you needed in your buffer based on the throughput rate of your factory and the changeover time of the dies. All of this was good and valid and useful info, but missing the point–their axioms were wrong.

    I think that is the germane point when discussing space. I think that many people assume that space has to be expensive, that launch vehicles have to be unreliable, when really these axioms may not be true at all.

    It is very important that SpaceX not try to develop new technologies to improve their marginal costs right now. It is much more important that they get some experience launching rockets, so that they can learn what actually costs money.

    Where did you get that from my article? Of course they need to get experience launching rockets and working with customers. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t work on reducing their marginal costs at the same time. Even at this point they can already see where some of the big money sinks are likely to be, so getting started on attacking those at the same time seems to make a lot of sense to me.

    I presume, as do you, that the market will grow. I presume, as I’m not sure you do, that the change will take time, maybe a decade, maybe two.

    I think the market will take time to adapt, but I think that once someone really starts changing things, that the market will change very, very quickly.

    That exposure is invaluable, because the next step (which happens in 2025 perhaps) is to build a ETO transport that serves those new needs. I claim you cannot guess well enough what the new customers will need, because they don’t even know yet.

    Sure you can’t know what those needs will be with 100% certainty, but there are a lot of things that should be pretty darned obvious, such as the fact that 98% reliability is not acceptable, and that nothing interesting is going to happen in space if vehicles aren’t going to orbit and back on a weekly or daily basis. Sure there are some specific needs that will need to be developed and fleshed out along the way, but Stagnating for 20 years while you wait for the market to change sounds like a really weird strategy to me.

    All this many-orders-of-magnitude stuff is just a distraction from real work.

    How is that? To me, drastically cutting the cost of space access is one of the key parts of the “real work”.

    If LiftPort wants to research how to build nanotube tapes, good for them, there is a big market now for strong fiberous stuff. But doing engineering on the climbers is just a waste of time right now. Fine for universities, fine for hobbyists, but don’t tell me it’s a commercial endeavor.

    Actually, I completely agree with you there. I’ve never been much of a fan of space elevators, and nowhere did I suggest that Elon, or anyone else for that matter, should focus on that. When I talk about drastically lowering the cost of space access, I mean building reliable, reusable launch vehicles that are capable of safely flying day-in-day-out over lifetimes of thousands of flights. Those don’t require brand new technologies like nanotubes to happen. Just lots and lots of applied engineering, business, market development, etc.

    If creating a low-cost, safe, and customer friendly earth-to-orbit transportation system isn’t real work, I’m not sure what is.

    ~Jon

  14. Anonymous says:

    Jon, you’ve outdone yourself. This is an excellent post.
    We should expect to see sub four minute turns on the XCOR Rocket Racers this year.
    Since the XCOR suborbital vehicles are advertised to use the same engines as the Rocket Racers, and I’d guess about four times the Rocket Racer’s propellant, there is no particular reason to think that a fifteen minute turnaround for a suborbital vehicle will be a stretch within the next two years.
    See Popular Science February, 2006.

  15. Anonymous says:

    >>”but there are a lot of things that should be pretty darned obvious, such as the fact that 98% reliability is not acceptable”

    For many types of payloads, like fuel, water, oxidiser, food and other consumables, 98% reliability (with a corresponding lowering of price) is perfectly acceptable.

  16. Anonymous says:

    >>For many types of payloads, like fuel, water, oxidiser, food and other consumables, 98% reliability (with a corresponding lowering of price) is perfectly acceptable.< < It doesn’t only depend on the intrinsic value of the payload. While 98% reliability might be acceptable for low-value payloads *launched on ELVs*, 98% will never be good enough for RLVs, no matter what the payload is: When you lose a vehicle, you lose not only the current mission/payload, but all revenues from *future* missions of that vehicle. Then too, the flight rate matters a lot: A 98% reliable system that flies only two or three times a year (e.g., Shuttle and many legacy ELVs) will go for years — perhaps the lifetime of the sytem, in fact — without seeing an accident. A 98% reliable system intended to fly twice a day, OTOH, is going to scatter quite a lot of hardware around!

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