By Jeff Cohen
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to tour many automotive assembly plants. As a child, I saw 1965 Ford Mustangs assembled at the Ford River Rouge factory in Michigan. When I became a General Motors executive and the brand manager of the GMC Jimmy/Envoy, I visited several GM assembly plants, including the now-closed Moraine Assembly in Ohio, which made my brand. My first encounter with the GM Freemont Assembly plant dates back to 1983 when I was a Johnson & Johnson sales representative stationed in San Jose, Calif. Years later, when I became a prospective Model S owner, my attention turned back to the Fremont factory, and on March 1, 2014, I was granted a private tour of the Model S production floor. But before I share the details of my Saturday tour, let’s review a brief history of the Fremont plant so integral to the Tesla story.
Fremont, California: three generations of automotive assembly
1962-1982: General Motors Fremont Assembly Plant
General Motors Co. opened the 5 million square foot assembly plant in 1962. Over the next 20 years, Fremont Assembly turned out midsize GMC trucks alongside some of today’s most highly prized muscle cars—the Pontiac GTO, Oldsmobile 4-4-2, Chevrolet Chevelle and Buick Skylark.
Fremont represented the automobile assembly plant organization pioneered by Henry Ford in 1903. This rapidly moving line, where workers added the same part to each vehicle as it came down the line, was not only repetitive and boring but also one of the root causes of the Fremont plant’s well-deserved reputation for poor quality, low morale and high absenteeism. For a fascinating look into the plant’s notorious history, listen to Frank Langfitt’s March 26, 2010 National Public Radio broadcast, The End of the Line for GM-Toyota Joint Venture. In 1982, GM threw in the towel and closed Fremont Assembly.
1984-2009: New United Motors Manufacturing Inc.
In the early 1980s, both GM and Toyota faced obstacles. “GM had to build small cars, but they were lousy and lost money,” NPR’s Langfitt explained. “Toyota had its own problems. The company was facing import restrictions from the U.S. Congress. So, it had to start building cars in United States. It wanted a U.S. partner who would teach it how to deal with American workers. Toyota settled on the rough bunch in Fremont.” The partnership, which lasted a quarter of a century, ended with GM’s bankruptcy in 2009.
2010-Present: Tesla Motors
The former NUMMI plant proclaims TESLA, blazoned in 18-foot letters. On Oct. 27, 2010, Sen. Diane Feinstein joined CEO Elon Musk to celebrate the formal unveiling of Tesla Motors and show her support for the $465 million Department of Energy loan, which helped ready the plant for Model S production. Tesla paid Toyota a mere $42 million for the 5.5 million square foot Fremont Assembly Plant “as is.”
A Tour of Tesla Fremont and the Model S Assembly Floor
I fell in love with the Tesla Model S after my first test drive, which was taken at my local service center in Northwest Atlanta in late 2013. With a pending order on the docket, I extended an upcoming San Francisco business trip to tour the Tesla Freemont plant. Although my Atlanta-based consultant tried his best to get me booked, without a firm order, my tour couldn’t be confirmed. So I took a chance by visiting the Fremont factory store, which is co-located at the assembly plant. Nothing like being there in person to increase the likelihood of getting on a tour.
Tesla Fremont Store & Delivery Center
My first stop, after passing through the security gates, was the Tesla Fremont Store & Delivery Center where prospective buyers can learn about the Model S and new owners take delivery of their vehicle and learn how to operate it.
Charge Her Up! I saw many current Model S owners stop by the Fremont Store to use the free Supercharger stations, which line a row of parking spots on the grounds of the plant. Owners stayed in their cars chatting on their cell phones during the 20 minute quick-charge time period.
Saturdays are big days for new owners to take delivery of their Model S premium electric vehicles, which were lined up under the big-top-style tent in the parking lot. It was a great way to see the various colors and trims for the Model S in natural daylight—as well as see a ”pre-owned” Roadster, as Tesla calls them, just waiting for its new owner!
Inside the Delivery Center lobby, a full-size chassis reveals the battery pack and the very limited mechanical installations needed for the steering gear; the three-phase, four-pole AC induction motor; and the drive inverter. Color and trim selectors are arranged on a large wall for mix and match. I helped one couple finalize their choice of interior color and dashboard trim.
The new owner delivery area is where buyers learn about their Model S from Tesla product specialists. Weekends are busy, but I was promptly greeted by Product Specialist named a Gary who showed me around the Delivery Center and answered all of my questions.
After waiting about 45 minutes for the wave of gallery visitors to subside, I set off on my private tour. Product Specialist Josh took me into the assembly area via a long hallway where externally sourced parts, including window glass, magnesium beams and instrument panel braces, are stored. At the main entry hall into assembly, three vehicles are on display: the Roadster from “Iron Man,” a fiberglass-bodied Model S bearing the 2013 Motor Trend Magazine Car of the Year trophy on its roof, and a black beta pre-production model.
My tour guide shared these interesting facts about the Tesla factory:
- About 3,500 employees work over two shifts in the Model S production area, which covers 25 percent of the plant’s footprint (1.25 million square feet).
- Model S production time ranges from three to five days depending on trim and options.
- Approximately 160 German-made Kuba stamping and welding robots (at an estimated cost of $60,000 each) are used in the body assembly and paint processes.
- Hundreds of bicycles and tricycles are available to employees for travel through the vast production areas.
- The Model X will be assembled on the former site of the Toyota Tacoma. A state-of-the-art premium electric SUV will be built where compact pickup trucks were once assembled.
The most striking feature of Model S production is that there’s no conventional assembly line. The Model S is produced through a combination of high-tech robotic body assembly (with virtually no human labor) and the high-touch craft stations. The increasingly assembled Model S travels on magnetic tracks from station to station where small teams of associates, as they are called, install assigned parts. It is the very best of precise robotic body assembly combined with hand-crafted vehicle finishing.
Seat Production. As we made our way down the center aisle, the hand-fabricated seat assembly production immediately caught my attention. In my experience, it’s rare to see actual seat assembly (foam over frame, leather skins over foam/frame assembly) in an auto plant. Seats are typically sourced (e.g., Lear Corp, Johnson Controls Inc.) and delivered to the assembly line just in time, or JIT. I told my guide about the time in 1996 when my tour of the Hamtramck, Mich., Cadillac plant was canceled because they were going to run out of seats in two hours! Not so with the Model S seats!
Production Area. Josh walked me by a variety of production stations off to the right-hand side of the Model S assembly area. Here, exterior features and trim are added and interiors are completed. Robots install seats and instrument panels. We then walked by battery pack final production. (Josh explained that most of the battery pack construction is done on the third floor). Associates worked diligently but did not appear to be rushed or bored while waiting for the next vehicle to come down the line. We walked past the final assembly and test drive areas where an indoor driving track and a few craft stations for final touches (that’s rework in auto assembly plant parlance) are located.
The tour ended with the export area. Here, the Model S is stripped of its wheels and battery and some export modifications are made. Remaining import modifications are completed when the vehicle arrives at its international destination.
Fremont Assembly: The Automotive Plant with the Last Word
To say the least, the Fremont plant has come a very long way in its 50-plus-year history. I think longtime automotive writer Micheline Maynard (whom I met during my GM days) said it best in her Forbes article, “Building Teslas At The GM Plant That Refused To Die” (June 24, 2012):
But as I watched the Model S roll out the door, it struck me what a survivor its factory has become. Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., plant should have closed decades ago, at least if it followed the same script as its far flung General Motors counterparts. … Instead, Fremont has persevered, to become one of the most notable plants in automotive history.
I could not agree more!
About the Author: Jeff Cohen is a former General Motors executive and an avid electric vehicle owner. Cohen maintains an EV-focused micro-blog on Twitter (@AtlantaEV) and recently founded the Atlanta Electric Vehicle Development Coalition (AtlantaEVDC.com). Pictured with Cohen is his 22-year-old son, Daniel, who accompanied him on the tour. Daniel, a 2014 graduate of Rice University, will attend University of Virginia School of Law this fall. In 2012, he interned at the Brookings Institution working on climate change, clean energy and carbon tax policy studies.
Copyrights by Jeffrey B. Cohen – All Rights Reserved
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