Walking the floor at SolidWorks World 2011 in San Antonio I saw some outstanding examples of cool product design, and heard more cool stories and great discussions about 3D design and product innovation in the breakout sessions. But what really got my attention was the NASA story.

Jim Lovell and Gene Kranz shared the incredible story of the Apollo 13 Mission, where Commander Lovell made the now infamous statement, “Houston, we have a problem.”

In 1970, two days into a mission to the Moon, an oxygen tank ruptured, severely damaging the spacecraft's electrical system—a malfunction that seemingly doomed the NASA team. With the guidance of Mission Control and the NASA staff in Houston, the crew demonstrated the ultimate display of ingenuity and teamwork, successfully navigating their way around the dark side of the Moon and landing safely in the Pacific.

The most amazing thing to me is that these guys reached the moon (and back!) in an era when computers had the equivalent compute power of today’s average toaster and the designs were created using a pencil, not a mouse. During the mission, NASA relied on 100 math majors who were flown in to Mission Control to calculate trajectories in real-time, using a pencil and calculator – a 1970’s calculator!

Wikipedia offers a good description of the Apollo 13 incident and a thorough root cause analysis. When all was said and done, there were no problems with the design of Apollo 13. It was perfect. The root cause of the accident was determined to be missed steps in implementing an internal design change.

The change affected 3 parts, but only two were corrected. And the problem was exacerbated when a subcontractor failed to follow correct work instructions, and internal personnel failed to follow established procedures relating to the oxygen tanks.

As Lovell and Kranz told their story, the message they often repeated was “team and process.” And in the end, it all came down to engineering change process, manufacturing / maintenance work instructions, and people-oriented procedures and processes. In other words, PLM. Not particularly sexy stuff ─ certainly not as sexy as 3D CAD ─ but when quality is measured in life-or-death results, the number one criteria is usually process, not a cool surface or innovative form.

This is where Aras comes in.  It’s not glamorous, but we make process and change management easy and attainable, no matter how complex the process or how large and globally dispersed the business. We focus on more than CAD file management; making workflow, quality and control plans approachable for users throughout the lifecycle, not just the design team. Why do we do it? Because, as Gene Kranz said so many times during those tense days in April of 1970, sometimes “failure is not an option.”