Texas Rocket Engineering Lab (TREL) is an interdisciplinary research lab incubating the next generation of innovators and rocketeers. Located within The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering, the team at TREL is in the early development stage of sending a rocket into space, aiming to reach their target apogee of 100km. Partnered with organizations including Firefly Aerospace, Boeing, Amazon Web Services, and Procurify, the team at TREL hopes to continue their research and development to make space exploration accessible to everyone.
TREL does more than build rockets. They inspire students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to create, test, design, and innovate while driving home the mindset that anyone can have a career in the space industry. Building something as complex as their Halcyon rocket – a liquid bi-propellant rocket scheduled to launch in December 2021 – their team of engineers, business managers, and operations managers handle everything from investor relations to building and designing the rocket itself. With US$1 million in funding to report on and launch deadlines to hit, the team at TREL needed a world-class operations system to safely put a rocket into space.
Director of Business Operations
Bryce Blackwell is Director of Business Operations at TREL. In his role, he manages the day-to-day operations of more than 250 engineers who are working towards building a rocket capable of crossing and returning safely from the Kármán line (the official 100km high boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space).
Getting a rocket into space takes a team of highly-specialized individuals across a variety of departments, all communicating succinctly. In this type of innovative environment, it is crucial that team members focus on specialized tasks. Bryce Blackwell, Director of Business Operations at TREL, knows that the success of this launch is dependent on his ability to provide the engineers with the materials they need as quickly as possible, without exceeding their financial commitments to their investors and partners.
As additional funding came in and the team continued to grow, Blackwell knew their reliance on Excel and in-person purchasing meetings were no longer scalable, and they needed a system that would act as a central source of truth.
TREL’s purchasing processes started as a simple Google Sheets document. But as the demand for materials increased, Blackwell and his team needed a more robust order tracking process. The team began tracking their purchase requests through Excel, which was fully accessible by all team members, allowing individuals to add and edit line items directly into the spreadsheet as new materials were needed. Although this gave the team the autonomy to request the supplies they needed, the open accessibility of Excel meant that duplicate documents began to pop up, creating confusion amongst the team.
“From an engineering perspective, managing multiple spreadsheets became too much. Once a week I would see a message like, ‘which procurement spreadsheet is the real one?’. Nobody really knew where we were supposed to be entering requests,” Lauren Rodriguez, Chief Engineer, explains. The lack of clarity around which spreadsheet was the “real one” led to team members taking it upon themselves to create their own spreadsheets to track their individual purchases.
“There were several spreadsheets, some were dated, some were marked as obsolete, but there was no formal announcement when a new one was created. Team members could be editing the wrong version of the spreadsheet for several days, weeks, or months and not really know,”
- Raymond Bowman, Director of Engineering
TREL’s processes needed to be agile, and they needed to make decisions quickly without jeopardizing the safety of the rocket. In-person purchasing meetings led to long approval processes involving multiple stakeholders. What’s more, conversations around spend were limited to once per week. Rodriguez and Bowman required approval from the Principal Director, who oversaw the entire lab, before they could approve any purchases. Tight deadlines meant the team needed to shorten the time in between their initial request and the final approval without losing sight of their budgets.
“The process needed improvement. We would meet on Wednesdays with our Principal Director and other team leads and make a case for the materials we needed to order, which would end up as an in-depth conversation instead of a simple approval or rejection,”
- Lauren Rodriguez, Chief Engineer
After the internal purchasing meeting, the list of approved items needed a secondary, and final, level of approval by TREL’s sponsors. Managing multiple levels of approvers meant Blackwell needed to engage in several ongoing relationships at once without losing sight of the organization’s spend. Blackwell knew there had to be a better way to reduce his time spent managing the manual approval process.
“We would create a list of purchases that we needed and then send that list to our sponsor,” “They would then approve the funds needed to purchase the materials. At that point, I could make the purchases. The back and forth took forever.”explains Blackwell.
Every order counts when creating something as intricate as a rocket. Materials and parts can take months to arrive so having visibility into exactly where those pieces were in the purchasing process can make or break the project. The combination of a multi-location organization and the reliance on static spreadsheets often left the engineering team in the dark when it came to the whereabouts of their orders.
Raymond recalls, “We were under the assumption that we'd ordered valves. Months later, we found out the order hadn't been placed. That line item must have been skimmed over, and that feeling really sucks. The order was just lost over time in some random spreadsheet.”
Once orders were finally placed, it was up to the engineers to follow up with the operations team for purchase statuses and whereabouts of their packages.
“Packages would arrive at three different locations. Most of the time it was up to the engineers to go manually check these locations to see if their items had arrived. As things got busier and more materials were coming in, several of us were going to these locations to check ourselves to see if our packages were there. It eventually fell on the more eager engineers who were getting sent all over the place,” says Rodriguez.
Responsible for managing TREL’s finances and reporting, Blackwell works closely with the University of Texas to report on and reconcile the team’s spend. Blackwell would send the University of Texas a list of items approved for purchase. The purchasing team would then reassign account codes, find better rates and discounts on items, and consolidate orders during the purchasing process. They would then send Bryce the order receipts. “We would get back this receipt showing us what was ordered, but we didn’t know what certain purchases were anymore. Our original purchasing list would turn into a massive sheet of expenses,” explains Blackwell.
With reporting expectations from investors, every dollar needed to be accounted for and reported on by the team at TREL. At the peak of their growth, managing the purchasing process through spreadsheets became overwhelming and began to jeopardize the integrity of TREL’s purchasing and financial data.
Blackwell would spend an entire week reconciling their orders against their receipts to get a clear picture of how money was spent. “I couldn’t pin our spend down on a specific project or department anymore, which created a huge headache for the operations team,” Blackwell explains. “It turns out we overspent on certain items, which was important to know, but we wish we had caught a lot of this overspending beforehand.”
TREL needed a solution that didn’t slow their engineers down and that streamlined business operations, so they started evaluating options. Blackwell’s other workplace, an aerospace organization, was using Procurify to manage their spend. Having seen the platform previously, Bryce knew the transition from spreadsheets to Procurify would allow the team at TREL to better control their spend without slowing down their processes.
With orders now tracked through the Procurify Platform, the team at TREL can trust that every purchase is requested and approved through a central source of truth. “Being able to track exactly what the engineers are requesting takes a lot of the load off of the business team. The requests are all in one place now instead of on different spreadsheets, and that really speeds things up internally,” explains Blackwell.
Centralized information creates clear visibility into an organization’s spend data. Communication can now happen in one place and engineers are no longer left in the dark when it comes to the status of their orders. This reduces their time spent checking order approvals and purchases.
From a business operations perspective, Procurify has streamlined communication between team members. “Because everybody has access to [Procurify], [team members] can check their order status themselves. When the order is placed, the information is updated. We’re not getting constant messages asking ‘hey, where’s my order?’ in our procurement Slack channel anymore,” explains Blackwell.
From an approver’s perspective, Lauren Rodriguez, Chief Engineer, highlights that “There’s a hard yes or no at the end of every single approval now which is important in my role. It’s gotten easier and a lot more straightforward to keep track of [requests], which was really difficult with spreadsheets.”
Raymond Bowman, Director of Engineering elaborates, “I really like the functionality of [Procurify]. Once you push something through, you can forget about it. You don’t have to worry if it’s going to go through or not because you know the process is there. It gives you closure that your request has been seen and is being pushed through rather than putting it on a spreadsheet hoping it gets ordered. It gives the engineers peace of mind to say ‘okay, now I can actually do some design work rather than hoping my order will come in at some point.”
Staying focused on designing and testing the Halcyon rocket will always be TREL’s primary focus. But to do this, the team required a system that was easy to implement and simple for everyone to adopt.
Lauren Rodriguez needed her team to understand the value of a centralized system, and everyone needed to know how to start putting their order requests through Procurify. “I can tell the engineers had a lot of confidence after putting in their first order,” she explains. “They know they’re going to have what they need when they need it because all the information you need is right there".
One of the greatest challenges TREL faced was receiving time-sensitive orders at one of their three receiving locations. With Procurify, the engineers now have transparency into the status of their orders, allowing them to deliver on their projects.
Lauren understands the significance of setting clear expectations when it comes to completing order requests. “With Procurify, you know the order request is going to be filled out properly,” she explains “If something is missing, it's on the engineer to make sure they’ve added detailed descriptions and dates the items are needed by.”
Upon arrival, team members at TREL no longer need to physically search for their deliveries across multiple receiving locations. “One of the things that our engineers really love about Procurify is that they can check on their orders themselves. It’s difficult for anybody to just drop what they're doing and physically go see if your shipment arrived. The receiving feature has simplified the process in that sense,” says Rodriguez.
When somebody sees a package has arrived, they simply open the Procurify Mobile App and take a photo of the packing slip, alleviating time spent chasing and tracking down missing packages. Once the order is marked as received in Procurify, the original requester receives a notification that their order has arrived. Bryce Blackwell notes that, “One of the greatest benefits [of Procurify] is tracking when shipments have arrived and being able to quickly upload a photo of the packing slip into the system.”
Blackwell is also responsible for reporting on the health of TREL’s finances and funding to investors. Being able to accurately relay TREL’s total spend in real-time means the data he reports on needs to be correct. Previously, it would take him a week to pull financial reports for investors. With Procurify, he can see the data he needs instantly.
“Before Procurify, I was trying to get transparency into our data, later realizing we weren’t capturing that data or that this data was just getting lost in the process. I now have an instant dashboard showing where we spent in the past quarter, past month, past week, along with all of the money that's been spent by project. I can instantly send that to our auditors and say, okay, here's where the most money has been spent.”
- Bryce Blackwell, Director of Business Operations.
When it comes to the spend approval process with TREL’s sponsors, the information is now transparent and easily accessible. “We don't have to talk. We have all of our information right there in front of us,” Blackwell explains. “Instead of having to bother each other with a meeting every week, we just look at our requests and approve it through Procurify. It has streamlined that process enormously.”
You won’t see a mission statement on TREL’s website referencing a rocket, even though that might seem like the end goal for the team. Instead, their mission is focused on creating the next generation of rocketeers.
“We don't say our mission is to build rockets. Our mission is to be an incubator for the next generation of aerospace rocketeers and pioneers. We’re creating the mindset that everybody can be in space which is exciting. It's so fun to be a part of.”
- Bryce Blackwell, Director of Business Operations.
With Procurify, the team at TREL can focus on their mission knowing their purchasing and spend controls are taken care of.
“Every time I get an email from Andre or anyone else at Procurify, I jump with joy because it's been so much fun. Whether it's talking about their mascot Dash or working with Brittany on setting up our processes, overall, Procurify is taking such amazing care of us and was patient as we sorted out our internal transition process.”
- Bryce Blackwell, Director of Business Operations.
The team at Procurify is excited to be a part of TREL’s mission into space. We’re proud to be partnered with an organization that reflects similar core values to our own: creativity, curiosity, compassion, and most importantly, courage.
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