Tesla recently invited CleanTechnica to its automotive factory in Fremont, California, for an exclusive tour that took us behind the scenes in one of the largest manufacturing facilities in the world. This is the factory that serves as the beating heart of Tesla’s automotive business.
From the outside, the factory itself spans several city blocks, with numerous smaller facilities in the blocks and miles surrounding the factory to add onto the Tesla fun. For example, Tesla’s seat factory is just 2.6 miles down the road. We also toured that factory and will have much more to say about the place where Tesla builds all of the seats for its vehicles — and why it’s so special.
Tesla is taking over Fremont, and even a cursory tour of the area highlights how fast the company is growing and the benefit of pulling all of Tesla’s various tasks into a single Gigafactory location. After months of planning, CleanTechnica’s Zachary Shahan, Chanan Bos, and I rolled up to the gates of the factory on a crisp March morning and took it all in.
The factory proper is nearly ¾ of a mile, or just over 1 kilometer long, and sits like the great ice wall from Game of Thrones across the property. Its white walls are accentuated by the occasional pop of red and large TESLA logos to shout out to the world and the nearby freeway what’s happening inside.
Upon entering the factory, we found ourselves in an open-concept office space, with random single-person working pods referencing Harry Potter, like the “Chamber of Secrets,” along the sides. There was also the usual assortment of huddle rooms and conference rooms. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any of Willy Wonka’s oompa loompas running around, or magical unicorns farting out showers of 2170 batteries. (Maybe next time.)
It was just a bunch of people working their tails off to move the business forward — designing vehicles, building out secretive new Autopilot hardware chipsets, and patching together the latest Autopilot release. It’s all in a day’s work at Tesla. The office looked clean and well branded, with a thick dose of coffee punctuating the otherwise stale office smell. Recognizing the vast thirst for coffee across the company, Tesla even has its own coffee roast, which is rumored to still available from some of the caffeination stations buried in the depths of the factory.
Team CleanTechnica donned our personal protective equipment and headed into the factory proper, where we were quickly greeted with the familiar sounds of forklifts, conveyors, and motors, punctuated by the occasional pop of a weld from the nearby body shop. Hopping on an electric cart, we zipped over to the General Assembly for Model 3 and took a few minutes to look at the Model S assembly lines.
General Assembly is where the painted body of the car comes to get all the fun stuff that humans actually interact with. That includes the wiring, carpet, dash, monitor, center console, seats, and the like. Hundreds of parts and sub-assemblies are bolted onto and into the vehicles as they move down a linear production line that has been selectively automated to eliminate ergonomically incorrect tasks and the need to lift heavy or awkward parts, or simply to speed up the process.
To Automate Or Not To Automate
In the Model 3 General Assembly lines, the balance of automation vs. human effort had clearly been worked out as Tesla sought to make the assembly process not only faster and more predictable, but also more friendly for humans. Generally speaking, Tesla found that machines are great at working with parts that are always the same size and in the same place, like metal, bolts, batteries, battery packs, hard plastics, and such. When it comes to working with fabrics, belts, wires, and the like, humans are better.
There is a strong case for using robots where lifting, placing, and bolting parts might result in repetitive strain injuries. The placement and fixing of the heavy dash assembly into the car is a great example. Machines can easily and quickly place the dash into the car and bolt it in predictably, time after time, without having to wonder if every bolt was torqued correctly. Tesla actually tracks each and every individual bolt and part used in a vehicle, along with the torque specs that were used when fixing them to the vehicle.
Tesla’s Manufacturing Operating System was built completely in-house and has evolved over time as the company grew. It currently supports nearly all of the company’s manufacturing equipment. The custom-built operating system has allowed Tesla to fine-tune its equipment and processes. It clearly comes at a cost, as every change must be vetted and developed internally, but the upshot of the additional internal complexity is flexibility. Tesla can quickly come up with a new improvement or change to its products, equipment, or centerlines and implement it before another automaker would even be able to get a formal proposal together to send to a vendor.
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Agile Manufacturing In Real Life
This flexibility and agile design methodology is common to hear about in just about any company with an IT department, but to see it playing out and actually, mostly working in a manufacturing plant is unheard of outside of Tesla. Again, people talk about what they call in the industry “extreme manufacturing,” but coming from nearly two decades in traditional manufacturing with 5 years in applied IT, actually seeing it functioning in the real world was impressive.
Tesla isn’t perfect, so don’t read this as if we’re stating that Tesla has automotive manufacturing so dialed in that nobody could ever do it better. It’s hardly that. Temporary engineering workstations were set up in the middle of the production line to troubleshoot the equipment. When we were there, I noticed line of partially finished vehicles had been pulled out of the production flow for body shaping issues to be corrected before moving along to painting. The factory, like every other factory I have visited, is a living, breathing entity.
The lesson we gleaned is that, while Tesla is far from perfect at manufacturing, it is, at the same time, improving at a rate that has never been seen before in automotive manufacturing history. The variability of a normal production line in any other factory in the world is compounded at Tesla by the stream of continuous improvements that are fed into the process every day, every week. This doesn’t just apply to the manufacturing process — the machine that builds the machines — but also its products. We heard and saw this play out time and time again throughout the day.
Tesla is constantly improving. Every day, its seats are getting better than the day before. Each and every day, its software is improving, iterating, evolving. Its welding has been tweaked, its battery chemistry is constantly being refined, battery module designs change, chassis, safety, steering, power output … you name it. That’s why Tesla doesn’t have model years for its vehicles. They are constantly evolving. Each day, or at least each week, Tesla is producing a different car than it was producing a week before.
Everything and anything in the company and in the car is up for debate. There are no so-called sacred cows that cannot be touched. That principle reared its head with the all-out push to release the $35,000 Tesla Model 3 Standard Range, which resulted in the very public statement that Tesla would be closing many of its retail stores and would be switching to 100% online sales, and that it would be slashing prices across its lineup at the same time. A few simple days of number crunching later, Tesla walked its position back a little, raising vehicle prices back up a few percent. Overall, a healthy equilibrium is reached, but the journey to get there is often bumpy, stressful, and unpleasant — especially if you are not accustomed to this style of business.
The Stamping Press
Tesla takes its vehicles all the way from rolls of aluminum to completed vehicles at its factory. That all starts with its massive Schuler press servo tandem line. This is the stamping press that’s tasked with stamping out body panels for the Tesla Model 3. While there are 35 of these presses in Europe, Tesla’s Schuler is the first of these high-precision, high-throughput presses in the US.
The Schuler press is so large that it is hard to take in at a single glance. We walked around the Schuler press and were able to see a changeover of the dies it uses to stamp out parts. Matched sets of dies are used in the Schuler to stamp out uniform aluminum body parts even faster than the rate claimed by the manufacturer, thanks to numerous improvements made by Tesla after commissioning the press. (Watch the 4 second video clip above for a visual on this.)
The Schuler may be the first of its kind in the US, but Tesla didn’t use that as an excuse to ramp up production slowly. Instead, Tesla’s team installed and commissioned the Model 3 servo press in ~25% less time than the fastest installation Schuler had ever done before. And that was just the starting point. Tesla proceeded to scrutinize every single piece of the press, making small tweaks and changes along the way.
At the discharge of the press, Tesla completely reworked the conveyors in order to fit more functionality into less space. The company did this by replacing the two discharge conveyor belts that came with the press with four shorter belts that fit better into the available space.
Changes like this and more allowed Tesla to increase the rate of the press from 12 strokes per minute to 14 strokes per minute, a 16% improvement. That translates to more throughput from an extremely expensive piece of equipment and less capital required to scale up production. Putting that into context, Tesla can now produce body panels and stampings from the Schuler press at twice the rate as its Model X stamping press line and a mind boggling four times the rate of the older Model S production lines.
After coming out of the stamping press, body panels and stampings are then manually inspected by a team of workers, with any imperfections being buffed out or flagged for correction before being filed into waiting racks. The racks of finished parts are then stored in an adjacent building until the body shop is ready to start welding them together into the body of a car.
A select set of the finished parts are pulled for quality assurance testing, where they are run through a vision system that checks them against a digital template. The multiple levels of quality checks aim to eliminate defects resulting from the press section, which translates into a better product for customers and a lower total cost to manufacture for Tesla. Quality is one of those metrics that we can all get behind.
After the press section, we headed into the heart of the beast. The tour path twisted and turned so much that my head began to swim, and before I could get my bearings, the process engineer that would be our guide emerged with a smile on his face. He explained that he would be taking us on a tour of the body shop, which is, contrary to popular belief, not the part of the shop where Elon and the other Teslateers go to get ripped.
The body shop is, in fact, where Tesla turns body panels into fully assembled auto bodies. Each section of the shop is comprised of densely packed robots that look like they came straight out of the latest Transformers movie. In each section, an army of these robots attack a specific set of tasks that grab body parts and inspect, fit, weld, or glue them together into a finished vehicle frame.
Tesla told us that the Model 3 body line is 90% automated and has over 1,000 robots, which is not hard to believe after visiting the factory. That figure takes on a completely new meaning when you see all those robots in real life, building cars, moving parts, and welding seams. As the Model 3 bodies are assembled, a team of 47 robots are hard at work at a dozen inline scanning stations that measure 1,900 points in every auto body to ensure that the cars coming off the line meet Tesla’s exacting standards. Take that, panel gaps.
Building on the philosophy described higher up in this article, where automation is well suited to tasks that involve rigid parts and repetitive tasks that might be ergonomically unfriendly or could result in high-impact quality variations, the body shop is all about automation. Body panels are fed into the process from storage racks and are quickly assembled like pieces from a Lego Technic set, with arcs of welding slag flying through the air (behind the guards) punctuating the process.
As we moved along the body shop production line, beautiful polished metal bodies emerged from the swirl of robots, evoking a smile of recognition from our group. The team of Transformer robots were extremely effective in turning a mass of body panels into an assembled thing that had a striking resemblance to my very own Tesla Model 3 out in the parking lot.
A Seat By Any Other Name
We took a stroll down the street to meet with some of Tesla’s interior and seating experts at the company’s “second-to-none” seat factory. Tesla’s decision to manufacture its own seats was yet another sharp diversion from traditional automotive manufacturers. It is yet another example of Tesla’s ability to pull difficult production tasks in-house, and the result is a one-of-a-kind level of vertical integration in its seat manufacturing.
The decision was initially made in response to a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo. There are four primary seat builders that build seats for the auto industry, but in typical Tesla fashion, they found that they needed higher quality, lower cost, and more flexibility than the suppliers could provide. So, Tesla brought seats in-house by hiring some of the best in the interior automotive and seat manufacturing industries.
Their Model 3 seat factory was initially built with capacity for two seat assembly lines with a total production capacity of 10,000 seats per week (5,000 per line). However, since starting up its first assembly line, Tesla has been able to squeeze out 7,000 seats per week from the first single line. That is especially relevant when we look at the high percentage of shared components between the Model 3 and the recently unveiled Model Y.
That translates to a 40% improvement in throughput from the single line and has allowed Tesla to continue to ramp up its automotive production without having to install the second line. Though, that day is surely approaching as Model 3 production continues to ramp up. CapEx is also positively affected, as Tesla could presumably achieve the same rate on the second line, effectively buying two lines and getting nearly a third line worth of production capacity for free, thanks to the improvements it made on the first two lines. Zach will soon publish a full piece on the wonders of the seat factory alone.
Stay tuned here on CleanTechnica for a comprehensive rundown of everything we experienced at the factory, including some fantastic video footage.