Marques Brownlee, aka MKBHD, interviewed Elon Musk at Tesla’s Fremont factory on August 15th, 2018, and hinted that a factory tour video would be coming shortly. Today, he has delivered. The new video features a walk through some of the Model S and X production areas, with the bulk of the time being spent in general assembly, where car parts are bolted onto the painted vehicle frames.
The Paint Shop
The factory tour starts out with vehicle frames coming into the general assembly area, presumably from the paint shop. The paint shop is perhaps the most critical “single point of failures” in the Tesla Fremont Factory, as it is the only place in the entire factory that the Model S, 3, and X all share. Said another way, if the paint shop goes down, production at the factory will grind to a halt.
The two talked about the possibility of a matte paint on a future Tesla vehicle and Elon shared that, while they had showed off a matte black Model 3 at the Model 3 reveal event, matte paint is hard to repair and blend. The difficulty blending makes it a great challenge to produce. “Like, with gloss, you can polish it out. With matte, it’s really hard to make it look like a nice even matte.”
Elon shared that “we would like to do matte in the future” but “adding more complexity to the paint shop would not be wise right now.” Add that to the ever-expanding list of nice-to-have options on the Model 3.
The last year has been a struggle for the entire Tesla team as they’ve slowly ramped up production of the Model 3. They are well on their way out of so-called “Production Hell,” but celebrations might be limited until the company is rolling out 10,000 Model 3s a week. The process has clearly been chock full of learnings for Elon and the rest of the team at Tesla. He shared with Marques that they are continually working to streamline the production process by eliminating unnecessary steps, unnecessary equipment, and even unnecessary moves by the equipment. Elon said it another way, noting that, “The best process is no process.”
To this end, Tesla is known across the industry for its fleet of manufacturing robots and its folly in attempting to automate as much of the production process as possible with Model 3. Elon and team have since backpedaled from their “automate everything” rallying cry and instead settled on a happy medium. In general assembly, for example, humans are much better than robots at navigating the repeated, but unpredictable tasks. For example, weaving the wiring loom of the car into the frame is a process that should result in the same outcome every time, but due to the floppy nature of the wiring loom and slight differences in the loom from piece to piece, it becomes an absolute nightmare to program a robot to do this. As such, most tasks in general assembly are done by humans for now.
Over in frame welding, the opposite is true. The metal components act the same way every time, guided by large robots that according to Musk are accurate down to .2 to .3 mm. This results in a very predictable result with every move, with every part and every tool, making it the ideal situation for automation. As such, most tasks in welding are done by robots, not humans. Another frame-related task, moving vehicle frames around in the factory is again an easy target for automation in the factory, so robots do that chore as well.
Of course, things are never black and white in the real world, even though these are the two most popular colors for Tesla’s vehicles, according to Musk. Some areas, like the step in manufacturing where the traction battery is connected up to the vehicle frame, is “mostly automated,” but a human is also at the station to provide additional guidance if a cable slips or some intervention is needed.
Automation typically provides the backbone for quality, as machines are much better at performing rote tasks over and over. Humans, who get distracted, bored, and tired, can easily make mistakes if tasks are too repetitive. Perhaps in the AI future Musk envisions, robots will get bored and become insubordinate, but until then, automation continues to be a key driver of higher quality.
Many of Tesla’s robots, like the Fanuc robots highlighted, have a core that is standard — for example, a robotic arm — but then also have some custom attachments for the specific application. This can be a suction cup attachment for moving around panes of glass or a custom fork to pick up a specific Tesla vehicle. The hybridization of Tesla’s robots makes repairs and replacements challenging, as loss or damage to a custom attachment has the potential to take down the entire production line.
Tesla continues to relentlessly pursue higher quality standards, noting that the devil is in the details. They have looked and relooked at every single step to confirm that it is being performed correctly, at the right centerline, as quickly as possible, and that it can do so repeatedly. For example, the torque setting of a bolt must be programmed into the system based on the number of rotations needed, the speed it can tighten the bolt, and the set point for torque applied to the bolt head.
They are not only vetting the settings, but also “the design necessity of every part and every process,” according to Musk. “Is there any unnecessary movement in the production line that isn’t value added — like where we’re not actually doing something.”
Toyota pioneered best-in-class manufacturing decades ago. Its processes were turned into a book called The Toyota Way. Any unnecessary steps in the process or any waste generated along the way were called muda, which translates to “futility, uselessness or wastefulness.” The idea of eliminating non-value add tasks resonates with Elon’s incessant focus on first principles when attacking a problem. The idea is the same, and that’s exactly how Tesla continues to optimize its production lines — one step, one problem at a time.
Tesla’s Fremont Factory is bursting at the seams with people. It’s parking problems are legendary and Musk shared that they are now shuttling people in from surrounding areas, with employees increasingly taking advantage of the new BART light rail station just across the train tracks from the factory.
To give some context, Elon shared that the Fremont factory used to employ 5,000 people, but they are now up to 10,000 people. That has put all of the supporting systems at the factory to the test and has caused some issues. It’s almost humorous that a guy hell-bent on designing the next generation of people movers — in the form of electric cars, rockets, and underground tunnels — continues to struggle with moving a few thousand people around on a relatively small campus … at least, small compared to a city. Compared to other factories, Fremont is a behemoth — and this doesn’t even touch on Tesla’s larger factory farther to the east, in Nevada.
The interview and tour provide a nice look at Tesla’s Fremont factory, in a way that delves into some new areas we haven’t seen before. Take a look at the full 15 minute video below to take it all in.
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