Insights from SpaceX’s Charlie Kuehmann

Insights from SpaceX's Charlie Kuehmann

Not everyone gets to hear in-person insights from one of the pioneers of materials innovation.

But during last year’s general session of CAMX 2018, Charlie Kuehmann, vice president of materials engineering at SpaceX and Tesla Motors and former product design leader at Apple, shared his thoughts on delivering materials innovations in areas like space travel and electric cars.

This year’s CAMX, set for Sept. 23-26 in Anaheim, California, promises to deliver similar high-level insights from pioneers in the global composites and advanced materials industry.

In case you missed Kuehmann’s talk last year, the SpaceX and Tesla executive — who’s a leader in computational materials design since its inception — emphasized material selection, sustainability, lightweighting, design engineering and collaboration in the automotive and aerospace sectors and beyond.

Here’s an overview of what Kuehmann covered.

Sustainability – While SpaceX’s primary goal with Starship is to build a space vehicle that will reach the moon and Mars, it also wants to focus on material and component recycling and reuse to support life away from Earth.

“Everything that we build or make we are going to have to reuse because it’s very expensive to bring anything else out there with us,” Kuehmann said. “So things like 3D printing, flexible manufacturing and recycling strategies are very, very important, and they are all things we’re working on.”

Exhibits and manufacturers presenting at CAMX 2019 will be displaying innovative products and advancements in 3D printing, flexible manufacturing and composites recycling.

Lightweighting – Tesla seeks to drive the world’s continuing shift toward sustainable energy.

“Transport is one of the few places where non-sustainable energy has been hard to displace,” Kuehmann said. “We can use sustainable energy in our homes and in our businesses, but it’s been very difficult to allow sustainable energy to take over transport systems.”

Design Engineering – Tesla’s Model 3 relies on aluminum, mild steel, high-strength steel, ultra-high-strength steel and composites.“Not only is this about getting the right materials where we need them, but this kind of approach [requires] looking at the joining technologies,” Kuehmann said. “When I talk with the design teams when we start these projects, I say, ‘Let’s start at the joints, and we’ll design the car out from there.’ That’s how much emphasis you have to put on the joining technologies.”

The team uses advanced castings and composites to integrate more of the body structure into fewer parts with fewer interfaces.

Kuehmann said SpaceX and Tesla are wrapping materials engineering into the overall design and engineering work. Integrated computational materials engineering (ICME) accomplishes this. In this process, a part and material are designed together thanks to process simulation software and material modeling capabilities.

Collaboration – Although they are separate companies with separate missions, SpaceX and Tesla do not operate in a vacuum, according to Kuehmann.

“One of the benefits of working in both groups is that we can utilize people across those teams,” he said. “We do collaborate regularly.”

Technology analyst Gene Munster observed in 2017 that one person binds SpaceX and Tesla. “In this race to disrupt the world with both electric cars and autonomy as well as space, you don’t really work for Tesla or SpaceX. You just work for Elon Musk,” Munster said. “You have the most wicked-smart people who can feed off of each other all working for Elon, and he can call on them to help crack various problems.”