Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The term “skunk works” comes from a tiny Lockheed Martin facility run by chief engineer Kelly Johnson in the 1940s, which started in a tent next to a malodorous manufacturing plant. That tiny space designed and built America’s first jet fighter in just 143 days, and created a philosophy for rapid innovation which companies copy to this day. Now, as more companies have to do more with less, many are moving away from giant research centres and towards building something like a lean startup inside their companies. Others have the luxury of a different model, where secretive labs work on projects that may never see the light of day.
Skunk works can refer to following a set of 14 rules and restrictions set out by Johnson, but we’re using a broader definition. These are the places where some of the world’s most talented thinkers and engineers are given time and freedom to create something fascinating.
Everyone from giant defence contractors to retailers like Walmart and Nordstrom are putting their brightest minds in dedicated labs to attempt to jump ahead of the competition. Here’s where they do it.
Lockheed is the home of the original skunk works, and it's still going strong today. The facility, located in Palmdale, California, is incredibly secretive. The few journalists who have made it inside have strictly limited access, and audio speakers on the wall project white noise so potentially classified conversations aren't overhead.
Some recently developed projects, guided by the mantra 'quick, quiet and quality,' and rapidly prototyped include the experimental Lockheed Martin X-55, an advanced transport aircraft, and the RQ-170 stealth drone.
One of the most mysterious, yet widely known secret labs out there is Google X, which is overseen by co-founder Sergey Brin. The lab works on more than 100 'shoot for the stars' type ideas like space elevators, indoor mapping systems, self driving cars, and wearable computers.
The lab's at an undisclosed location in Northern California.
Boeing obtained McDonnell Douglass. According to the company, there are about 4,500 employees working on almost 500 R&D projects at the secretive St. Louis facility.
In addition to finding ways to design and prototype projects much more rapidly, Phantom Works attempts to work towards the future of aviation, with projects like the Solar Eagle drone, made in cooperation with DARPA; the Boeing X-51A Waverider; and the Phantom Eye drone.
Amazon owns Lab126, a secretive and separate Cupertino-based R&D company that focuses entirely on developing hardware that's tightly integrated with Amazon services, like the Kindle.
It was reportedly given nearly unlimited resources to develop a reading device that was 'drop-dead simple to use.' They may be in the process of rapidly growing the group to attempt to challenge Apple. rumours are constantly flying about potential work on smartphones or other projects, but the group is notoriously stingy about access.
Amazon also has a separate subsidiary, A9, that works on innovations in search and advertising.
Apple has one of the best early examples of a Skunk Works, with Steve Jobs and a hand-picked team of 20 people moving to a small nearby building called Texaco Towers to work on what became the Macintosh.
Now, Apple maintains a culture of incredible secrecy. One example is probably design guru Jony Ive's lab. Relatively few details are known about it, But there are about a dozen hand-picked designers in an area separate from the main campus where they work on projects, described by a senior Apple exec as 'very experimental, material that the world is not quite ready for.' They have a separate kitchen so details aren't discussed where others could overhear.
Raytheon is another example of the widespread adoption of rapid prototyping and innovation by defence contractors. Raytheon describes the philosophy of their Tuscon-based 'Bike Shop,' named for the shop where Wilbur and Orville Wright created the aeroplane, as 'Envision -- Create -- Accomplish.'
The Wall Street Journal describes their quarters as 'about as impressive as a high school science lab.' Sometimes, scientists, instead of waiting, will go pick up materials at the local Home Depot.
They pick tiny teams with passionate leaders to imagine an idea, bring it within the laws of physics, then make it a business possibility in the quickest time possible. The HYDRA vehicle system, for example, went from idea to prototype in less than a year.
This Wilmington, Delaware lab is one of the world's earliest industrial research laboratories. It's responsible for some of the most famous and useful inventions the company's ever come up with, including nylon, kevlar, and neoprene.
Today, it's DuPont's primary research facility for advanced materials, and one of its two major sites for industrial biotechnology and advanced agriculture. Scientists are working on everything from 'smart' materials that can adjust performance on their own to microorganisms that produce biodegradable products.
Ford's Special Vehicle Team is a small group of engineers, product planners, and marketers all housed under one roof, apart from the rest of the company, tasked with creating the company's highest performance vehicles for an extremely discerning clientele. They work on tight deadlines, and innovate in ways that end up affecting less specialised vehicles.
The company's Silicon Valley Lab was opened in Palo Alto, Calif. in 2012, and aims for a start-up type environment, with whiteboard walls and an open floor plan, and aims to bring big data and an innovative user experience into Ford's Vehicles.
The company also turned to the Skunk Works model as it attempts to reinvent Lincoln, putting together a crack team of 85 people, many hired from other luxury automakers, to completely and rapidly change the brand.
Nike's Sports Research Lab and Innovation Kitchen may be located on the company's main campus in Oregon, but access is extremely limited. In the past, it helped develop the first Air Jordan.
Now, Nike Digital Sport it is pushing the company's digital transformation with items like the FuelBand, the Sports Research Lab is fitting clothing to particular body types with a 3D scanner, and the Innovation Kitchen is developing disruptive technology like the weaving technique used in the Flyknit Racer, which went through some 195 major iterations in the Kitchen.
Traditionally thought of as just a big box store, and not a particularly hip one, Walmart actually has a whole division, Walmart Labs, devoted to shaping the company for the future of commerce and the digital economy. It started out with the purchase of Kosmix, a search and social media analytics startup, and the aggressive courting of Silicon Valley engineer Jeremy King to run the place.
Based in San Bruno, California, the lab's helped completely change the search at Walmart.com so it can recognise that a woman might mean shoes, not a TV when she types 'flat'; pioneered the use of social cues to suggest gifts to customers; and an effort to bring same day shipping to customers. It has the formidable task of building technology from scratch that puts Walmart on equal footing with giants like Amazon in the e-commerce space, blending the digital and in-store experience.
quattro GmbH is a private subsidiary of Audi located in Neckersulm, Germany. Since 1983, the company's been producing high performance, highly customised vehicles under the Audi marque.
The Audi R8 sports car was completely designed, developed, and is now manufactured, by quattro GmbH in a newly renovated factory, also in Neckersulm.
The Nordstrom Innovation Lab is meant to be a lean start-up inside of a Fortune 500 company. It exemplifies the lean startup philosophy because it tries to rapidly create products in real time. In one case, the small team went to the company's flagship store in Seattle and created an iPad app to help customers pick sunglasses in just a week.
The Seattle-based lab uses Lean Startup thinking, Design Thinking, and whatever technology makes sense at the time to rapidly execute disruptive ideas. They aim to build a product every week or two, expect 80 per cent to fail, and for the 20 per cent that succeed to have a huge impact.
H.P. Labs, the company's advanced technology arm, exemplifies the new, frugal, globally-based approach to innovation. Director Prith Banerjee has a lab in India to 'innovate for the next billion customers,' because people in Palo Alto may forget that the whole world isn't developed. Instead of focusing entirely on basic research, his core 500 researchers spend a third of their time looking five, 10, or fifteen years into the future, a third of their time improving existing products on a six- to eighteen-month timeline, and a third of their time working in between.
The company also aggressively sources ideas from Universities, which are then developed in tandem with H.P. Labs.
Staples is one of the most recent entrants into the field, announcing in December of 2012 that it has opened a Cambridge Massachusetts-based lab to help the company become more innovative in e-commerce and leverage its position as the number two online retailer.
Their whole mobile team is already based there, and they hope to attract the best talent in Boston's thriving startup and academic community with their aggressive blue-sky goals, an attractive office, a site right in the heart of Boston's innovation district, and the opportunity to work for a huge player in e-commerce.
One of the most legendary research labs out there, PARC pioneered many of the technologies that made personal computing possible. However, many of the benefits of their groundbreaking basic research ended up going to other companies.
It's changed a great deal since then. Since 2002 the company's been a fully-owned subsidiary of Xerox, doing advanced research work for corporate. Over half of the work is for Xerox, but companies like Samsung, Sony, and P&G have partnered with PARC for advanced projects in things like futuristic communications and networking technology, optics, and printed and flexible electronics.
IBM's first PC was incredibly built in less than a year in the company's Boca Raton, Florida skunk works facility. The company still runs these types of projects, recently letting engineer Jeff Jonas take two years and a small team to build a 'big data analytics sense-making engine' that can make sense of data as it comes in.
Combining that approach with more traditional methods seems to be working. IBM recently announced that it had more patents than any other company in America, for the twentieth straight year. That tally includes the first patents related to the Watson supercomputer. The company's primary advanced research facilities are in Yorktown, New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Samsung frequently gets accused of copycatting others, but they're increasingly regarded as an innovative company in their own right. The company does advanced research at the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, working on everything from 3D holography to quantum dots and carbon nanotube technology.
Samsung has research sites around the world, but work on next generation components and digital technologies is focused in Yokohama, Japan.
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