Return to: Zeitlin's Page


My Impression of Working at Scaled Composites:


Acme Standard Disclaimer:

The opinions, ravings, and claims (along with any accidental fact disclosure) expressed below are those of Marc J. Zeitlin, and are in no way correlated with those of Scaled Composites (assuming I even know them).  Any similarity between the views of Scaled Composites and Marc J. Zeitlin are completely and utterly coincidental (as is most of life), and due only to the congruences of fate. No animals were harmed in the writing of this essay (well, very few, anyway.  OK - OK - seven.  Get over it - they were all invertebrates, anyway).  All bits are recycled, and comply with OSHA and EPA regulations.


Introduction:

Many people have asked me to describe working at Scaled Composites. I will try to do so to the best of my ability, and to the extent that I have permission to do so from my manager. As of this writing (February 15th, 2006), I have only worked at Scaled for 5.25 months - hardly enough time to get a full understanding of either the people, the environment, the culture or the work itself.  However, I have gotten a good flavor of  these things.

Facilities:

The first thing that you notice coming through the Scaled plant is that Scaled spared substantial expense on facilities - having plush digs, such as Silicon Valley startups have, does not show up in the game plan. If you find that having roofs that don't leak; floors that don't jump when there's a sonic boom; desks and cubicle walls that match (or exist); or the absolute latest in computer or display technology important to you, avoid Scaled at all costs - you won't find them here :-).  Although, upgrades are on the way for some of these things (at least in the engineering areas).

Growth:

Scaled, as you were told by Burt/Sally at OSH, is growing, and a lot faster than it ever has before. This creates opportunities, both internally and externally - numerous job postings exist on the Careers web page in many areas. As at any quickly growing company, growth also causes difficulties with changes in management structures and responsibilities, as well as cultural changes. Some of these changes are good, and some are bad, but they come whether we want them or not.  You can't run a company with 150 - 250 employees the same way you ran a company with 50 employees.

Talent:

So far, I have found the engineers to be excellent. Very bright, hard working, and very helpful. Every time I go to someone for help with something (and that happens often) - aerodynamics, math, stress analysis - they've been more than willing to sit down and spend time helping me understand what I need to know. I have received a lot of help with aerodynamic issues in particular. No one has told me to go pound sand yet, in any way :-). Most of the engineers are young - 20's and 30's, but there are folks in their 40's and 50's as well, who have had experience elsewhere. And as I demonstrate, they're not afraid to hire someone ancient (48 and counting, in my case) if they feel that the person can contribute.

Tools:

We have a range of tools available. For the engineers, CAD systems are numerous, ranging from Ashlar's Cobalt (the derivative of Vellum, which Burt has been using forever) to Catia and Solidworks, we use what we need to to get the job done for the customer, and what the engineer has training in. The computer hardware is more than adequate, with reasonable standardization on brands, if not in types, or monitors (just yet). We have an internal machine shop with mills and lathes (and associated saws, etc.) for doing light metalworking, and we have a welding shop for building tooling frames and aircraft parts. Obviously, there is a lot of composite fabrication equipment, and folks that know how to use it. Currently, there are a lot of new folks in the fabrication area, so some are still on the steep part of the learing curve, but one of the things that we're doing is standardizing training in composite techniques so that we'll have a consistent knowledge base across the staff.

Of course, the thing that's most impressive is the 5-axis milling machine, used for cutting foam tooling. While seeing the dimensions listed as 50' x 20' x 8' is impressive, it's nothing compared to actually watching the thing cut.  The cutting floor is big enough so that if there was some reason to do so, you could cut the whole top half of a COZY MKIV mold (fuselage, wings, winglets, from nose to firewall, from wingtip to wingtip) without having to move the foam.  You could then flip it over, and cut the bottom.  What you would do with a COZY MKIV shaped block of foam, I have no clue, but you could do it, and in a semi-reasonable period of time. One of the most impressive things about this machine is the amount of foam dust that it creates - we take away dumpster loads of foam dust on days that it's running continuously, and the operators spend a good portion of their time vacuuming up dust. Given it's size, the fact that it can provide a surface finish that requires very few secondary operations (sanding, filling, etc.) to get it ready for tooling layups is also notable.

Culture:

The culture of Scaled is far more anarchic than anything I've been previously exposed to (in a work environment - I've dealt with a lot of anarchic organizations on a personal level). The Scaled organizational structure is VERY flat - so each manager has a LARGE number of folks reporting to them. Engineering folks have a great deal of freedom within which to figure out the scope of their assigned work and to utilize manufacturing folks to help them bring their designs and work to fruition. Manufacturing folks essentially form a pool, and a given project may have people coming and going in and out on a daily basis, depending upon workload. Daily scheduling in the fabrication shop is very flexible; that's not necessarily a bad thing, since in the prototyping world it's difficult to schedule things. Because of this arrangement we're extremely fluid and can react quickly to changes in workload or priority.

Burt's primary goal (as he's said many times in public) is to have fun doing interesting things, and the culture and organizational structure are geared to that end. Folks have a LOT of leeway and flexibility to define their own jobs, both in engineering and manufacturing, and we (in engineering) get the opportunity to get our hands dirty and get involved in just about everything. If you can't get a fabricator to do something or build something for you because they're unavailable, you do it yourself if you don't want to wait. Being the control freak that I am, sometimes I find the lack of structure, either organizational or tactical, difficult to deal with, but I'm getting used to it, and it's refreshing to see that folks are ENCOURAGED to make decisions and take responsibility on their own, without having to ask permission first (mostly).

Projects:

Obviously, I can't always say what I've worked on, or who it's for, or what the technology is.  However, I can say a few things.

The first project I worked on when arriving back in September was really a training run for me. I helped another engineer out in creating "layup schedules" for some parts that he was fabricating. This involved creating documentation that would tell the shop fabricators how many layers of what fabric to lay up in what orientation and in what position, along with defining the epoxy matrix to use, as well as any vacuum bagging parameters, cure cycles and temperatures. This must be defined for all layups so that the material will cure correctly to it's maximum strength and stiffness.

I next worked on fabricating a towing mechanism that would attach to a customer's aircraft and let them do low and high speed taxi testing while being pulled by a pickup truck.

As everyone knows, Scaled is working on the next generation of sub-orbital spaceships. To that end, I spent some time creating preliminary mock-ups of factory floor layouts for the rocket motors and spaceships. I tried to learn as much as I could about the fabrication techniques for each, and the envisioned methodologies for assembly. I then attempted to envision all the tooling and workflow that would be needed, and created 3D computerized walk-through models of the factory floors. For the most part, these were for evaluation purposes - I don't expect that the actual factory that's eventually built will look anything like what I've drawn up, but it will be a good place to start the eventual conversations.

In the vein of "culture" and processes, I've spent some time codifying the different types of proprietary information within Scaled, and came up with an information distribution scheme for Scaled employees so that by a glance at a poster (created at the advent of each project), anyone can quickly determine what information needs to be protected and what can be distributed or revealed to non-Scaled employees. This should help protect both Scaled and Scaled's customers from unauthorized information release.

I've done some stress analysis on a part that was broken due to someone (not a Scaled employee) running into an airplane part with a fuel cart. Since a part had broken, but forces had been imposed on many parts in an assembly, we wanted to ensure that none of the NON-broken parts had seen stress levels higher than the design allowables, even if we couldn't see any defects or bends. I backed out the force that would have been required to break the given part, and then used that force as the input for the rest of the parts to see what stress levels would have been imposed. As it turns out, the part that broke was the only one that saw excessive stresses, and we didn't have to redesign anything, or rebuild anything but the broken part. This was one of the times in which I used the skill-set of one of the other engineers to assist in verifying my analysis, as it's been a long time since I've dealt with Mohr's circles and shear stresses :-). He was extremely helpful and knowledgeable, and we determined that my analysis was conservative, so we felt good about the results.

As Scaled has revealed in the past, we sometimes use fixtures mounted on the front of trucks to mimic the workings of a wind tunnel (since we don't have one). I have designed a reusable fixture for a customer's tests, mounted it on a pickup truck, and used data collection equipment to measure airspeeds, angles, and forces on the customer's components. We will then try to correlate what we find with theoretical calculations and CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) simulations. There's not much cooler than bolting some contraption you've designed and built to the front of a big honking pickup truck and then driving up and down the taxiways at 70-90 mph while a computer inside the cab collects data on what the thing hanging out in front of the nose is doing. Whoo, hoo.

I now have responsibility for the Environmental Control Systems of the next version of the SpaceShip. This entails the breathing air supply for the cabin, including CO2 and H2O elimination as well as emergency procedures (leaks, etc.). It also involves responsibility for the backup Reaction Control System (the little thrusters that are used for directional control when out of the Earth's atmosphere), as well as the pneumatic Feather Actuators and Feather Locks (the gizmos that bend the spaceship in half for descent, and lock it back down straight afterwards). I have begun familiarizing myself with pneumatics, high pressure air equipment, sub-sonic and supersonic flow through orifices, light weight air tanks, and all the inter-relationships between these things.

Conclusions:

I had many trepidations about moving 2700 miles across the country, at the age of 48, away from my friends, home, family, and son just going off to college. While I had always said that I wanted to design aircraft, once I was graduated from college it became pretty clear that if I wanted to stay on the east coast (which I did), that wasn't going to happen - there just weren't any aircraft manufacturers of aircraft anywhere around (Grumman, in Bethpage, NY on Long Island, doesn't count, as they disappeared not long after I got out of college). So I decided that general Mechanical Engineering would do, and I worked for 22 years, mostly in the medical field, designing mechanical devices and products.

After I was laid off from Philips in April, 2004, and Scaled flew the Spaceship 1 to win the X-Prize, I was encouraged by wife and friends to send in a resume. I did so. Eventually, Scaled made an offer, and I had to make a decision. It struck me that an opportunity like this wasn't going to come along again - there are very few companies that do the kind of work that Scaled does, and I had no "ins" with any of them. I vacillated, but finally decided that I'd be kicking myself for the rest of my life if I didn't take the opportunity to do what I had claimed I had wanted to do ever since I was a child. I accepted the offer (after a little negotiation on $$ and timing), with a lot of support from my wife.

I have to say that after over 5 months here, everything is working out better than I could have hoped. Personally, Deanie and I are having a great time together, and whatever worries I had about her not liking it out here have been removed - she loves it in Tehachapi. Workwise, I've already done a stack of interesting things, and the next couple of years of working on the spaceship promise a lot more of the same - I'll have to learn a TON in order to do my job, and that's 1/2 of the fun.

So all in all, this has worked out terrifically. Check back in 6 months to see if it's still going well :-).


Return to: Zeitlin's Page
Copyright 2006, All Rights Reserved, Marc J. Zeitlin

Last Revised: February 15, 2006