Why Virgin Hyperloop and the nuclear industry are not so different
The nuclear industry is characterised by academic and scientific rigour, which is engrained in its culture, approach and knowledge of delivering results. Despite that, the industry will still face challenges as it develops advanced technologies.
However, it isn’t the only industry experiencing change. Virgin Hyperloop has developed core technologies to create a new mode of transport, by carrying passengers in airtight pods at speeds of up to 700mph.
Traditional development, engineering and programme management methods are not suitable to deliver such complex programmes. They require not only a range of engineering approaches to be deployed in different aspects of the programme and at different stages of development, but a complex systems view of the delivery. This includes taking into account uncertainty, people aspects, and commercial and technical integration.
Indeed, there are several key lessons the nuclear industry can learn from the Virgin Hyperloop.
When considering the ways in which to deliver a complex programme, such as those with novel technologies, it is important to recognise the areas of uncertainty from the outset and learn to become comfortable with ambiguity.
PA Consulting worked with the Virgin Hyperloop team to help set out a clear vision from the start and adopt an agile approach to delivery. By setting a ‘north star’ the team could navigate through the inevitable and unavoidable bumps in the road and get focused on a common goal.
Virgin Hyperloop had no real comparisons or foundation to build on, therefore the team had to expect change, and plan for it. It meant they couldn’t determine the final requirements at the beginning of the project, and therefore would have to measure and improve until an end target took shape. By adopting an agile, evolutionary lifecycle, the core team was able to incorporate change into the delivery.
As fusion has demonstrated in the evolution of the STEP reactor, iterative cycles and programmes are key in development of an exemplar product. Those involved in the development and delivery of nuclear fusion projects have become comfortable with complexity by producing models and prototypes at different scales. These help to reduce risks and allow teams to learn the art of the possible.
The remaining parts of the nuclear industry should learn from this approach. There is real value in using prototyping to identify issues and areas needing change, inform trade-off decisions, and validate the learning, which in turn inspires investor and customer confidence.
If teams can learn to understand uncertainty throughout the delivery cycle and plan how to reduce it through learning, they uncover and fix the real problems earlier and are much more likely to be delivered successfully.
People over process
Accepting failure is a vital part of any major project. It is rarely down to novel technology, but more commonly due to the people involved in the process.
No instructions or conventions exist when attempting to deliver vast and complex programme, and so the focus must be on the individuals, mindsets, behaviours, and capabilities. It is essential to recruit and retain top talent, with everyone, from top to bottom aligned to one common goal.
Ensuring the customer remains at the centre of everything the organisation does it also key. The Virgin Hyperloop team’s customer focus brought additional technical complications as well as critical health and safety requirements, but the commitment to the end user allowed them to zero-in on what was necessary.
Integrate technical, commercial and business domains
Implementing a programme structure that balances and integrates technical, commercial and business domains is critical. As the scale of interdependencies increased, Virgin Hyperloop recognised the need to pull together multiple disciplines to deliver at scale.
The project created a culture where the teams could collaborate on cross-domain problems by breaking down the traditional siloed structures. This guaranteed the project was optimised and worked well in a large-scale agile environment.
Another challenge facing the industry is the need to adapt its traditional business models to take advantage of economies of scale. It should move its focus from the traditional large-scale one-off projects to the delivery of individual nuclear products.
That product orientated design approach will need to be supported by a supply chain that can deliver high volume, repeatable and commoditised assets.
This will also require an understanding of the complexities of through-life system support. This is particularly important given the length of time nuclear reactors spend in service.
However, through shifting the focus from the one-off projects to repeatable products, the nuclear industry could capitalise on reduced through-life costs and resulting improvements in commercial viability.
The combination of reduced procurement costs and the use of predictive maintenance systems such as digital twins and Industry 4.0, will also magnify the industry’s ability to deliver commercially viable systems.
Virgin Hyperloop embedded through-life system design from, ensuring maintenance demands were reduced, intelligent monitoring systems were built in and the decommissioning and disposal of products were considered. The nuclear industry should look to exploit these same approaches.
Stabilise in large-scale iterations
Stabilising highly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous programmes in large-scale iterations is critical to ensuring progress.
This was particularly important for the Virgin Hyperloop team and will be increasingly important for the nuclear industry to build confidence – from both potential investors and future customers of advanced nuclear energy.
Building ‘stabilisation’ periods and aligning the team’s vision at regular intervals during the project helps to harmonise the programme, and provides opportunity to ensure the product remains feasible and economically viable.
Hyperloop began life as a venture capital funded start-up and relied heavily on cash-flow. It meant the team had to develop a system efficiently and at pace, whilst minimising risk to inspire investors and as well as customer confidence. They learned that tangible demonstrations of technology were more effective than conceptual designs. People wanted to see and feel how the new system would operate.
Setting a baseline for the team and becoming comfortable with the upcoming challenges provided clarity and stability. Scaling these demonstrations was also an important step in making the novel concept a reality.
If applied to the nuclear industry, this entrepreneurial ‘start-up’ approach could revolutionise how investment is secured and how the supply chain is mobilised.
The traditional reliance on the UK Government for a clear demand signal once the design has matured often constrains the ability to mobilise the supply chain and think long-term.
The development of new nuclear technology perhaps provides a unique opportunity to shift from a dependency on Government and seek investment from a broader range of sources.
The nuclear industry needs to fundamentally change how it approaches the design and delivery of complex programmes so that new technologies can become a reality.
Virgin Hyperloop shows that there are ways to overcome complexity, and in some instances, adapt to it. There will always be complications throughout programme delivery. The real challenge, however, lies in the lack of experience in how to move from the conceptual phase through to the creation of a commercially viable product.
The successes of the Hyperloop show how problems associated with complex delivery can be addressed, and could inspire the nuclear industry to implement programmes that will shape the future of energy.