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 companies 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 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:
Seth Weintraub contributed to this report.
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.
Our recent coverage of Tesla Motors:
- A look at the team of “hardcore” engineers building Tesla’s Autopilot and the exodus that followed its release
- Tesla is implementing a new custom end-to-end platform called ‘Tesla 3DX’ to ramp up for the Model 3 and Tesla Energy
- Tesla signs a lease for a 40,000 sq-ft showroom and service center in Brooklyn, NY