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Home 9 Aerospace & Defense 9 From Warplanes to Creative Engineering:
How Skunk Works Gets Things Done

From Warplanes to Creative Engineering:
How Skunk Works Gets Things Done

noun: also skunk works, skunk·works [skuhngk-wurks] .Slang. an experimental laboratory or department of a company or institution, typically smaller than, and independent of its main research division.

The summer of 1943 was a hot one. The world was mired in an infernal global conflict that stretched from the central pacific to the shores of Western France. The German Wehrmacht had honed their “Blitzkrieg” tactical strategy to great affect across the European continent.  This unprecedented “Lightning War” of speed, agility and decisionmaking had made victory almost an inevitability for the Axis powers. But in sunny California, a group of young engineers were spearheading military innovations that would acutely respond with their own lightning-fast abilities.  

Unencumbered by bureaucracy and superfluous organisational structures, Lockheed’s   Advanced Development Program (ADP) a.k.a. Skunk Works project, exceeded expectations in fighter jet development and production. That summer of 1943 saw Skunk Works, under team leader Clarence “Kelly” L. Johnson, deliver the P-80 Shooting Star in just 143 days, a week earlier than promised. 

The history of the original Skunk Works team had begun some 5 years prior in 1938, when Lockheed aerospace engineer Johnson sequestered a small team from the rest of the company’s operations. This small, hand-picked group of engineers would fabricate what would become the legendary P-38 Lightning. And thus, Skunk Works was born.  

Today, more than 80 years since the first iteration of the engineering team, the term ‘Skunk Works’ is synonymous with getting things done. The concept and operational structure has become a mindset that transcends industries while encouraging businesses to think and act with efficiency and creativity.  

What does Skunk Works mean in business?  

You can get a lot more done, with a smaller team. 

The bigger the organisation, the slower and more cumbersome they become; that is the nature of things. This unfortunate consequence of growth hinders many organisations from delivering adequately to their clients in both the private and public sectors. Furthermore, in most organisations, it is the team maintaining the core of the business who is now tasked with developing new projects. This can easily become a quick recipe for failure.  

Under Promise, Over Deliver 

A promise made is a debt unpaid. It is in these moments you call in your own Skunk Works.  Creative engineering firm Enginuity is carrying that torch. With a contingent of engineers delivering the disciplines of Automation and Aerospace to Marine and Mechanical, projects benefit from a 360-degree perspective. Unencumbered by hierarchy and posturing, the team at Enginuity position themselves at the epicentre of the goal. From deep within the project, these engineers emerge with offerings and solutions that catapult their partners ahead, on time and on budget. 

These are the inherent and natural benefits of engaging in an external Skunk Works team like Enginuity. Additionally, in keeping within the tradition of utmost discretion, the Enginuity team has been supporting projects in sectors where confidentially is paramount – globally.   Learn more about our cutting-edge work in aerospace and defense.

Innovation and Urgency 

Although the original Skunk Works team was motivated by a wartime arms race, today’s challenges are also highly consequential and require swift and prudent action. Take for example the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. The pivoting of industries to provide for the mass shortages of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) in hospitals and health centres across North America required an immediate retooling of many production lines.  

Take for example the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. The pivoting of industries to provide for the mass shortages of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) in hospitals and health centres across North America required an immediate retooling of many production lines.  

When called upon by the provincial health authority in Canada to deliver a solution, the Enginuity team built a process for assessing clinical needs, prioritising needs into projects, rapid evaluation of potential solutions, rapid-prototyping and identification of suitable supply chain partners who had the ability to retool their own systems. This incredibly unobstructed efficiency made a monumental impact in the delivery of healthcare.  

Within 6 months 96 ‘Operational Needs’ were evaluated, 24 projects struck, and many prototypes delivered. Closed labs were opened, dormant factories were restarted, and stockpiles of industrial material were repurposed and certified for healthcare use. 

Competitive Advantage 

Wars and global pandemics are not the only catalysts for swift and efficient product rollout. Today’s free market of even freer ideas have set the stage for a race to market that is more cutthroat than ever before. To maintain competitive advantage over other players in the field either here or abroad, it is necessary to include a skunk works-like team in your corner. Rapid, reliable engineering can design, iterate, test, and protype your product in a fraction of the time it would take to hire and re-train an existing team.

A skunk works for hire, if you will. 

The diversity within the Enginuity team also presents a breadth of experience that calls upon varied inspiration and know-how. Having solved problems in other verticals, these engineers and technicians apply experience that cross pollinates between defense systems to food processing, and everything in between – Inspiration where you’d least expect it. Even the Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) are designed and prototyped on site, before being handed to local, trusted manufacturing partners. 

Fresh Eyes 

The average age of the 1940s Skunk Works team member was but 30 years old. There is something to be said about the creativity of youth. More often this youth and vitality is accompanied by an audacity of the possible and an “of course we can do that” attitude. However, this independent ethos speaks more to a strong work ethic than naivety. A skunk works for hire is akin to a secret weapon in your arsenal, or an ace up your sleeve.    

It is a traditional, tried, tested and true way of moving a project along without the daunting and massive investments in existing organisational infrastructure.  

The Good Guys 

We are faced with arguably the same global instability today as we faced in the 1940s when Kelly Johnson was given a seemingly ‘impossible’ deadline. Our challenges today may differ slightly, with climate change, global food insecurities and labour shortages counted among them. But there are still bad actors on the global stage vying for position and dominance who cannot be ignored nor disregarded. 

Kelly had 14 steadfast and adherent rules to the operation of the original Skunk Works.  

Rule 3 read: “The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. “ Kelly continued, “Use a small number of good people”.  

Clarence “Kelly” L. Johnson and the Skunk Works team challenged stifling bureaucratic dogma that suffocated innovation and impeded progress. Johnson’s audacity ultimately resulted in countless successful deliveries of ground-breaking technologies to solve massively complex challenges. We are all inspired by Johnson and co. and their incredible achievements.  

And again, the time is now.  

As the adage goes; if you don’t do it, somebody else will. 

Interested in your own Skunk Works team? Enginuityinc.ca  

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