During Tesla’s annual shareholders meeting, Elon Musk told his audience that Tesla is putting much more effort into designing the factories of the future. By focusing on “physics-first principles,” Musk said, he believes the production capacity can be increased exponentially if the focus is on “building the machines that build the machine.”
He says the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada is being designed like a giant supercomputer rather than a conventional manufacturing facility. Ultimately, he thinks factories could produce 10 to 100 times as many finished goods as they do today. He explains it this way:
“The factory itself is considered to be a product. The factory is the machine that builds the machine. It actually deserves more attention from creative and problem solving engineers than the product it makes. What we’re seeing, if we take a creative engineer and apply them to designing the machine that makes the machine, they can make 5 times as much headway per hour than if they work on the product itself.”
While that may be true for the Gigafactory, what does it say about making cars? At the moment, Tesla has one auto manufacturing facility — the former NUMMI factory where Toyota and General Motors used to build cars in Fremont, California. That factory has a theoretical maximum capacity of 500,000 cars a year. Tesla is currently building Model S and Model X cars there at the rate of about 2,200 a week or 110,000 a year. Musk says he expects Tesla to build 500,000 Model 3 cars a year. 110,000 plus 500,000 would exceed that theoretical maximum capacity for the Fremont factory.
Unlike Donald Trump, Musk does not pretend to know all the answers. He freely admits the Model S was designed with little thought about how to actually manufacture it. The Model X was supposed to be built on the Model S chassis, but the car wound up having almost 80% new parts, making it impossible to manufacture the SUV on the same assembly line as the sedan. He says Tesla learned from its mistakes and that for the Model 3 the focus was on ease of manufacture from Day One.
In a recent post on Seeking Alpha, Randy Carlson asks some interesting questions. If increasing the speed of production applies to the Fremont factory as well as the Gigafactory, the pace of the Model 3 line will be faster than human workers can handle. But human workers are still more proficient at some tasks — such as fitting items to the interior — than robots. How to solve the contradiction?
Carlson thinks the great big gaping hole in the roof of the Model 3 may be a clue as to what Tesla has in mind. He writes:
“One innovation [in the Model 3 is] a very large rear window extending forward to the ‘B’ pillar, eliminating the structural beam above the heads of rear seat passengers. This innovation increases rear seat headroom and at the same time reduces complexity of the design. The big Model 3 rear window does something else, too. It creates a great big hole in the Model 3 design. A hole very conveniently located to allow robots an unobstructed reach into the Model 3 interior for installing carpets, wiring harnesses, sensors, seats, and the like.”
Once robots are able to manufacture an entire car, human workers can be removed from the assembly line and the speed of production can be dramatically increased. Tesla has recently added a glass roof option to the Model S, an option that requires removal of the center roof support just like on the Model 3. We know a glass roof will be an option on the Model 3. Is the new glass roof option on the Model S a sign that Tesla has also figured out how to use more robots to build that car as well?
Tesla’s head of production is Peter Hochholdinger. For 22 years, he was in charge of building cars for Audi. Earlier this year, he told the press, “The cars we build [at Tesla] are about seven years beyond everything I’ve seen before.” Is Hochholdinger one of the first to see what “the machine that builds the machine” looks like? If so, he seems to be very much in awe of the changes that Musk and his merry band have in mind for production facilities in the 21st century.
Source: Seeking Alpha