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 centers and towards building something like a lean start-up 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 defense 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.
1. Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs, or Skunk Works
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.
2. Google X
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.
3. Boeing Phantom Works
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.
4. Amazon's Lab126 and A9
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. Rumors 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.
5. Jony Ive's Apple design lab
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.
6. Raytheon's "Bike Shop"
Raytheon is another example of the widespread adoption of rapid prototyping and innovation by defense contractors. Raytheon describes the philosophy of their Tuscon-based "Bike Shop," named for the shop where Wilbur and Orville Wright created the airplane, 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.
7. DuPont Experimental Station
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.
8. Ford's Special Vehicle Team and Silicon Valley Lab
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 specialized 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.