Originally published on TeslaMondo.
The last few minutes of the shareholder event, beginning at 1:22, during which Musk describes his ongoing re-examination of his own factory, warrant a verbatim transcription here on TeslaMondo. This is an alpha engineer at work, folks. It’s an awesome thing to behold. It might be dry, and it might lack an exciting visual, but it represents Musk’s dogged first-principles reasoning — the same reasoning that resulted in reverse rocketry and Tesla’s multiple novelties — “caught on camera.” He’s realizing that the factory’s design and production processes embody a little too much reasoning by analogy. They could be re-worked and dramatically improved. This will result in a better, stronger, and faster Tesla.
Maybe you watched the Six Million Dollar Man as a child. Remember the opening? For a couple of seconds, you saw Steve Austin running at full gallop in real time, not slow motion as in the actual episodes. This was pre-CGI, of course, so we weren’t jaded to such spectacles. He ran faster than anyone could possibly run, and it looked real. It inspired lots of children to go outside and run around the yard.
Well, this is every bit as inspiring. If you have any appreciation for engineering, this makes you want to burst open the door, go outside and … and … re-think something, dammit.
Musk’s thoughts may be a little hard to follow at times, but that’s okay. Nobody could keep up with Steve Austin either.
“We’ve realized that the true problem, the true difficulty, and where the greatest potential is, is building the machine that makes the machine. In other words, building the factory. And really thinking of the factory like a product, not a hodgepodge of things where the machines are bought from a catalog.
“Just like we do with the car. We don’t try to create a car by ordering a bunch of things on the catalog. We design the car the way it should be and then we make them — either we or working with suppliers — make all of those individual components. There’s almost nothing in a Model S that’s in any other car. And I think the same approach is the right approach to take when building the machine-maker. The factory.
“I actually think the potential for improvement in the machine that makes the machine is a factor of ten greater than the potential on the car side. I think maybe more than a factor of ten. I’ve really come to appreciate that over the last two or three months in particular when I’ve just been on the production floor all the time and seeing things, running production personally at a detailed level. I don’t even have a desk or an office anymore. I’m just basically standing on the production floor and occasionally meeting in a conference room.
“And it’s like, wow. I do my favorite thing, which is apply physics-first principles. When you think of a production facility on a fundamental level, for a given size of factory, the output is going to be volume times density times velocity. So let’s look at our factory and say okay, what is the density of useful to non-useful volume? It’s crazy low. It’s like two or three percent. If you look at it volumetrically, not just on a planar level, but volumetrically, it’s literally two or three percent when you say car to non-car volumetric ratio. Like wow, that seems like a lot of room for improvement.
“And then you say velocity. What is a reasonable expectation for the exit velocity of vehicles from the factory? And at first you may think that, say these advanced car factories from around the world, and they’re very good at making cars, and they may make a car every 25 seconds. That sounds fast, but actually, if you say, well, the length of the car plus a buffer space is approximately five meters. And so it’s taking 25 seconds to move five meters. Okay, that’s .2 meters per second. Basically, you’re not much faster than a tortoise at that point.
“So it’s like, that doesn’t seem fast. A slow to medium walk would be one meter per second. And a fast walk would be 1.5 meters per second. And the best car factories in the world are doing .2. Seems like we should be able to have cars exit at at least walking speed. This doesn’t seem so crazy.
“And then, the density improvement. There may be as much as an order of magnitude in density possible as well, going from maybe two or three percent to twenty or thirty percent of the volumetric density being optimal. And you also think of it like the design of a modern system on a chip or a computer. If you look at, say, the complexity of the board, and you see how close together the line tracings are and how focused things are on clock speed and data transfer from RAM to solid state disk or the internal CPU cache. It’s like wow, there’s crazy potential for improvement here. I think at least an order of magnitude in potential for improvement on production. And so with significantly less engineering effort, we can make dramatic improvements to the machine that makes the machine.
“I think probably a lot of people will not believe us about this, but I’m absolutely confident that this can be accomplished. We’re basically designing our factory the way you’d design an advanced computer. And in fact, use engineers that are used to that, and have them work on this. And I find once you explain this to a first-rate engineer, the light bulb goes on and they’re like, wow, as JB was saying, they spend huge amounts of effort trying to get a fraction of a percent of improvement on the product itself, but actually, that same amount of effort is an order of magnitude if you focus on building the machine that builds the machine. And it’s just that a lot of engineers don’t realize this is possible. They think there’s a wall. They’re basically operating according to these invisible walls. We’re in the process of going through and explaining that those walls don’t exist, and I think it’s going to be pretty amazing.”
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