Built to Test

by Brian on April 14, 2011

Aza Raskin and Signal vs. Noise wrote excellent articles recently about airplane designer Paul MacCready. During the 1970’s and 80’s, MacCready made improvements to human-powered aircraft design and introduced innovative rapid development methods. The articles argue persuasively that MacCready’s iterative development methodology was critical to his aircraft designs.

In the 1970’s, aircraft development cycles were months or even years long. MacCready observed that long development times made design innovations slow and difficult. MacCready focused on designing an airplane that could be built and rebuilt quickly, in hours or days. The short development cycles allowed MacCready to quickly build, test and improve his aircraft. He ultimately won the prestigious Kremer Prize in the late 1970’s for his human-powered aircraft.

What I love about MacCready’s approach is that he questioned one of the unstated assumptions of airplane design: the long development cycle. While his contemporaries took long cycles as a a given, MacCready recognized it as THE problem. He understood that by shortening the development cycle he could produce better aircraft.

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