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Elon Musk hires Apple’s alloy expert to lead materials engineering at both Tesla and SpaceX


Elon Musk, CEO of both electric automaker Tesla and rocket manufacturer SpaceX, splits his time between his two companies, which he also co-founded and financed with most of his early fortune from Paypal. Now Electrek has learned through sources that Musk will not be the only executive dividing his time between Tesla and SpaceX since the CEO hired Apple’s alloy expert Charles Kuehmann to lead materials engineering at both companies.

Kuehmann is now Vice-President of Materials Engineering at Tesla and SpaceX, where he is responsible for delivering materials innovations, something he is very familiar with after over two decades spent in materials science.

Musk often talked about the difficulties involved in running two companies, but he also acknowledged some advantages of being active in two different industries. SpaceX aims to dramatically reduce the cost of rockets and if there’s an industry who mastered the art of making complex vehicles cheap, it’s certainly the automotive industry.

On the other hand, Tesla has benefited from SpaceX’s expertise of high-tech manufacturing techniques such as stir welding, a technique SpaceX uses to join large sheets of metal like the ones used for the aluminium tank of their rockets.

It was revealed last year that SpaceX transferred friction stir welding equipment to Tesla.

Tesla and SpaceX share a few board members and there’s been movements of engineers between the two companiesX before, we have recently reported on some in our piece on Tesla’s Autopilot team: A look at the team of “hardcore” engineers building Tesla’s Autopilot and the exodus that followed its release, but nothing as conspicuous as holding VP roles at each company, like Kuehmann.

Kuehmann apparently started his new roles in December after leaving both his positions at Apple and QuesTek Innovations, but we could only confirmed it today.

aluminium tesla fremontAluminium coils at Tesla’s Fremont factory from bonus footage of Racing Extinction

Kuehmann earned a PhD in Materials Science & Engineering from Northwestern University in 1994 and co-founded QuesTek two years later with four other colleagues affiliated with Northwestern University to commercialize the work of his mentor and pioneer in the field of computational materials design; Prof. Gregory B. Olson, who has been called the “father of materials design” by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

QuesTek Innovations went on to successfully develop and commercialize not only several new materials engineering tools and processes, but also numerous new alloys based on a number of different elements including Al, Co, Cu, Fe, Mo, Ni, Nb, Ti, and W.

From the company’s website:

“We computationally design materials to directly meet user-defined material needs with our proprietary Materials by Design expertise and technology. We rapidly invent, design and develop and qualify new materials into demanding applications to reduce capital, processing, operating or maintenance costs, or to improve environmental protection, competitive supply or competitive advantage.”

In 2012, QuesTek’s technology was sold to an undisclosed buyer in Silicon Valley while retaining rights to its intellectual property and client list.

The 66-year-old entrepreneur and Northwestern University professor of materials science and engineering was celebrating the sale late last year of the technology developed by QuesTek Innovations LLC, a new-materials design company he co-founded in 1996. Mr. Olson and the dozen QuesTekers who didn’t decamp for Silicon Valley, where the unnamed buyer is based, are in rebuilding mode.

Coincidentally (or likely not), in 2012, Kuehmann joined Apple as ‘Director of Product Design’ while staying on QuesTek’s board of directors. Many others also made the jump from Questek to Apple that same month indicating that Apple was likely the buyer of QuesTek’s IP.

Looking at his background, Kuehmann seems to have an expertise in aluminum alloys, which Apple uses extensively in its products from the iPhones and iPad to the MacBooks to the Apple Watch Sport.

Kuehmann is named as an inventor on dozens of patents, mainly for QuesTek and Northwestern, but also on a 2014 patent application from Apple for “Aluminum alloys with high strength and cosmetic appeal”.

Apple claims that the aluminum alloy developed for the Apple Watch is 60 percent stronger than standard alloys but just as light:

Kuehmann left Questek’s board in June 2015 and then Apple in November 2015 to join Elon Musk at both Tesla and SpaceX.

Musk’s companies, which both extensively use aluminum alloys, will likely be able to make good use of Kuehmann’s expertise.

The Tesla Model S and X are primarily made of aluminum, which proves strong and light, but also suffers from malleability and is expensive to repair. Hence why Tesla’s upcoming mass market third generation car, the Model 3, is expected to contain less aluminum than its predecessors.

Tesla owns the largest aluminum press line in North America and is capable of producing one part every six seconds, according to the company:

Kuehmann’s materials design knowledge could also be useful to Tesla’s battery research effort and eventually its battery cell manufacturing, which is expected to start at the Gigafactory later this year.

SpaceX also makes full use of alloys. From the company’s website:

“Falcon 9 tanks are made of aluminum-lithium alloy, a material made stronger and lighter than aluminum by the addition of lithium. Inside the two stages are two large tanks each capped with an aluminum dome, which store liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) engine propellants.

The tanks and domes are fabricated entirely in-house by SpaceX using SpaceX’s custom-made friction stir welders to execute the strongest and most reliable welding technique available. The structures are painted in-house by SpaceX.”

Tesla and SpaceX also both use the space-grade superalloy Inconel. In the case of Tesla, the automaker uses inconel for the main pack contactor on its “Ludicrous upgraded” battery packs, while SpaceX uses it to manufacture the SuperDraco engine.

Kuehmann should feel right at home with Tesla where he will join several Apple alumni now working on Tesla’s senior hardware engineering staff, including Doug Field, former VP of Mac Engineering at Apple and now VP of Engineering at Tesla, and Rich Heley, former Director of Alloy Engineering at Apple and now VP of Products at Tesla. We also also recently reported in exclusively that Tesla hired former Apple microprocessor engineer Jim Keller and Motion Sensor Engineer Andrew Graham.

Seth Weintraub contributed to this report.

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Side note: SpaceX has a rocket launch today scheduled for 23:46:14 UTC (6:46:14 PM EST). you can watch live via SpaceX’s webcast, or via SpaceX Stats Live to get live updates with the stream. At the time of writing this, the weather is a 60% go.

Update: SpaceX’s rocket launch has been push to today Feb 25 same time.

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  1. Catscradle - 7 years ago

    Does this mean Liquid Metal is in the works?


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