Tesla CEO Elon Musk may have pulled back from his initial all-in position on the automation of the Model 3 production lines in recents weeks but don’t make a mistake about the course correction — it’s not an abandonment of his pursuit of autonomous factory lines. In fact, Tesla shared with Bloomberg that the “Model 3 body line is now 95 percent automated, including the transfer, loading, and welding of parts.”
The premise behind automation is that no matter how good they are, humans make mistakes. Also, they must be paid as long as they work, whereas machines can be paid off and still operate.
Computers, and the robots they control, operate off of static or dynamic logic and can react in a standard, predictable way to a static input. “The object in front of me is the left-hand door. When I see a left-hand door, I grab it with all 8 of my appendages, pick it up and move it from location A to location B. When I get the door to location B, I tell the robot named Superman to bolt it up.”
Automation resonates with Tesla because at its core, Tesla thinks and operates like a software company. Its vehicles have firmware that can be improved via over-the-air updates because what programmer in their right mind thinks the program is ever going to be bug-free on launch day.
Even if it was bug-free, there will always be an inevitable feature that it would be nice to have the ability to add 2 months from now. Tesla did exactly this in response to feedback from Consumer Reports, which found the braking distances on the Model 3 to be all over the map. Tesla fixed the issue and pushed it out to all Model 3s in less than a week.
Automation of a manufacturing line is how programmers and software nuts translate their logic gates and syntax into the physical world. Elon didn’t want to buy and build a production line that could only do one thing. He wanted and built the physical manifestation of a manufacturing programming language that he could then take and, as the conductor, make it sing a song that best suited the needs of the company.
Vehicles change over time, especially at Tesla, where the Model S has famously received as many as 20 changes per week in its production vehicles. A constantly changing product requires a production line that can adapt and be reprogrammed to suit the ever changing needs of the business.
Continuous Improvement (aka, The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection)
Software evolves. Tesla’s products evolve. If it is anything else, the bumpy startup of Tesla’s Model 3 production lines represent the violent collision of the virtual world of software with the physical world. It’s Tron all over again.
Continuous improvement isn’t new to the manufacturing world, but robots have changed the impact it can have. If we only read the cover of the book, robots represent the future that childhood cartoons promised — flexible, delivering the goods and services we need when we need them, and doing it all with a smile.
In the real world, robots may smile but they aren’t perfect. It takes a vast army of programmers, automotive experts, and unbridled willpower to push through the inevitable programming bugs that manifest themselves as squeaks in the finished product, body panel gaps, and uneven paint.
Doing this on a vast scale with dozens of robots in each production line while facing a daily assault by the mainstream media about every.single.flaw that crops up is not a task for the faint of heart.
Tesla’s Model 3 production line was the equivalent of running into battle while trying to put on your armor and sharpen a sword mid-sprint. The old metaphor of attempting to build a plane while flying it is a fair one, with hundreds of thousands of reservation holders chomping at the bit to get that one special email from Tesla, inviting them to the party of their lives.
— Anna Easteden (@AnnaEasteden) June 6, 2018
On the other side of the table, investors hold positions or shorts in an admittedly over-inflated stock that soared to unsustainable levels based on goals that were stated in Elon Time but that must be achieved in the real world.
To make matters worse for Tesla, it has taken up a bold position at the tip of the spear in the battle against climate change. It’s not a fight against the planet but a proxy war with the entire fossil fuel industry that continues to greedily cling to the vestiges of a dying industry that refuses to get with the times. The times, they are a changin’, and Tesla was the one to pull back the curtain, exposing both the terrible nature of fossil fuels, but more importantly, showcasing just how much better electric vehicles could be than the fire-belching, smoke-spewing internal combustion vehicles that came before.
As if it needed any icing on the cake, much of the media continues to sensationalize each and every fire in a Tesla vehicle even though its rates of fires are so low as to warrant celebration for such a drastic improvement. Overall safety rates of Tesla vehicles and the flood of thank you tweets from accident survivors make it clear that Tesla is leading the charge towards a safer car, fires and all. No system is perfect, but even Tesla’s hotly debated Autopilot solution is already a four-fold improvement in passenger fatalities compared to the industry standard.
It’s no wonder Elon is going a bit crazy fighting battles on every front when the data proves otherwise. But that only matters if the vehicles make it out the door. Elon is confident that they will achieve the target Model 3 production rate of 5,000 vehicles per week by the end of this month. In Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting earlier this week, Elon shared that all Model 3 production lines had demonstrated a rate of 500 vehicles per day. It’s going to take more work to get all of those production lines singing in harmony but it’s a step in the right direction. It’s progress.
Tesla’s army of robots are also focusing on delivering the highest quality vehicles with the tightest tolerances for quality of any automotive manufacturer on the planet. Bloomberg shared that Tesla has 47 robots deployed in scanning stations sprinkled throughout its Model 3 body production line.
“They measure 1,900 points in every Model 3 to match them to design specs—with a precision of 0.15 millimeters. Torque measurements are also automatically recorded for every bolt that’s fastened. During the final test drives on the track, sound recorders measure squeaks, rattles and wind and road noise that a test driver might miss. All of this data is stored with each car’s unique Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, so service centers can trace any issue back to a root cause in the factory. The idea is that Tesla will be able to improve its cars, even after they’re in a customer’s driveway.”
This might seem extreme but it’s par for the course for Tesla. Getting back to automation, these robots provide data — real data, not just red/green, pass/fail triggers — that demonstrate conclusively that Tesla’s vehicles meet quality targets.
Along the way, they gather data, masses of data that again speak to Tesla’s roots in software. Big data drives the enterprise and Tesla believes that capturing as much data as it can while the vehicle is being manufactured will allow it to identify root causes of issues it discovers later. The trend analysis and root cause analysis of traditional manufacturing will surely give way to applied machine learning and artificial intelligence being used to analyze and identify trends based on actual data from the field.
It’s only a matter of time before Tesla starts rolling these learnings into its products before they become problems, using its quality assurance robots and data to let AI design and then build the next generation of Tesla vehicles.
The future is now. Tesla is defining the next generation of not only the automotive industry and the energy industry, but the entire world of manufacturing. This is history in the making.