31. March 2019 by Kyle Field
Tesla recently invited CleanTechnica to his Fremont, California car factory for an exclusive tour that took us behind scenes in one of the world's largest manufacturing facilities. This is the factory that serves as the striking heart of the Tesla automotive industry.
From the outside, the factory spans itself over several districts, with many smaller facilities in the blocks and miles surrounding the factory to add to the Tesla fun. For example, the Tesla seat factory is just 2.6 miles down the road. We also toured that factory and would have much more to say about the place where Tesla builds all seats for their vehicles ̵
Tesla takes over Fremont, and even a brief tour of the site highlights how fast the company grows and the benefits of pulling all Tesla's various tasks into a single Gigafactory location. After months of planning, CleanTechnics Zachary Shahan, Chanan Bos, and I rolled up to the factory gates on a sharp March morning and took it all in.
The plant's proper is almost ¾ of a mile or just over 1 mile long, and sits like the big ice wall from Play Thrones over the property. The white walls are accentuated by the occasional pop of red and large TESLA logos to shout out to the world and the nearby highway, which happens inside.
When we got into the factory, we found ourselves in an open concept office, with random individuals' thugs who refer to Harry Potter as "Secrets Chamber", along the pages. It was also the usual range of huddle rooms and conference rooms. Unfortunately, we didn't see any of Willy Wonka's oompa loompas running around, or magic unicorns that knock out showers of 2170 batteries. (Maybe next time.)
There were just a bunch of people working on their tails to move their business forward – designing cars, building secret new Autopilot hardware chipsets, and assembling the latest Autopilot release. It's all in one day's work at Tesla. The office looked clean and well marked, with a thick dose of coffee that drew the otherwise stale office smell. Tesla has even recognized the great thirst for coffee all over the company and even has its own coffee roast, which is rumored to be still available from some of the cafeteria buried in the factory.
Law CleanTechnica donned our personal protective equipment and led into the factory, where we were quickly faced with the familiar sounds of forklifts, conveyors and motors, separated by an occasional snout from a nearby body shop. Jumping on an electric wagon, we zipped over to the General Assembly for Model 3 and took a few minutes to look at the Model S assembly line.
General Assembly is where the painted body of the car is going to get all the fun things that people actually interact with. It includes wires, carpet, dash, screen, center console, seats and the like. Hundreds of parts and sub-assemblies are bolted into and into the vehicles as they move down a linear production line that has been selectively automated to eliminate ergonomic error and the need to lift heavy or difficult parts, or just to speed up the process.
To automate or not automate
In the Model 3 General Assembly lines, the balance between automation and human effort was clearly elaborated when Tesla tried to make the assembly process not only faster and more predictable, but also more friendly to humans. In general, Tesla found that machines are good at working with parts that are always as large and in the same place as metal, bolts, batteries, battery packs, hard plastic and so on. When it comes to working with fabrics, belts, cords and the like, people are better.
There is a strong case for using robots where lifting, positioning and bolt parts can lead to repetitive strain injuries. The location and attachment of the heavy dash unit in the car is a good example. Machines can easily and quickly place the tension into the car and screw it in for predictable time, without having to wonder if each bolt was screwed properly. In fact, Tesla tracks every single bolt and part used in a vehicle, along with the torque moments used when attached to the vehicle.
Tesla's production operating system was built completely internally and has evolved over time as the Company grew. It currently supports almost all of the company's production equipment. The purpose-built operating system has given Tesla the opportunity to fine-tune equipment and processes. It is evident at a price, as each change must be perceived and developed internally, but the result of the extra internal complexity is flexibility. Tesla can quickly make a new improvement or change in its products, equipment or midlines, and implement it before another automaker will be able to get a formal proposal together to send to a vendor.
Agile Manufacturing In Real Life
This flexibility and flexible design methodology is commonly heard in almost every company with an IT department, but to see it play out and actually, mostly work in a production facility is unheard of outside Tesla. Again, people are talking about what they call in the "extreme production" industry, but come from almost two decades in traditional production with 5 years of applied IT, as it was really impressive to see it work in the real world.
 Tesla is not perfect, so do not read this as if we say that Tesla has car production so called in that no one could ever do better. It's hardly that. Temporary technical workstations were set up in the middle of the production line to troubleshoot the equipment. When we were there, I noticed that line partly finished vehicles had been pulled out of the body design production flow that had to be corrected before moving to painting. The factory, like all other factories I have visited, is a living, breathable unit.
The lesson we have discovered is that while Tesla is far from perfect for production, at the same time it is improving at the same time as it has never been seen before in automotive manufacturing history. The variation in a normal production line in any other factory in the world is made up of Tesla by the stream of continuous improvements being fed into the process every day, every week. This applies not only to the production process – the machine that builds the machines – but also its products. We heard and watched this time and again all day.
Tesla is constantly improving. Every day, the seats are better than the day before. Every day, the software improves, iterates, develops. Its welding has been tweaked, the battery chemistry is constantly refined, changes in battery modules, chassis, safety, steering, power take-off … you mention it. Therefore, Tesla does not have model years for its cars. They develop continuously. Every day, or at least every week, Tesla produces a different car than it produced a week before.
Everything and everything in the company and in the car is up for debate. There are no so-called sacred cows that cannot be touched. That principle arose at the head of the all-out push to release the Tesla Model 3 Standard Range, which resulted in the very public statement that Tesla would close many of its stores and would switch to 100% online sales and that it would be slashing prices over its lineup at the same time. A few simple days of numbers that shattered later, Tesla went back a little, and the price of cars increased by a few percent. Overall, it's a healthy equilibrium, but the journey to get there is often uneven, stressful and uncomfortable – especially if you're not used to this style.
Tesla takes their vehicles all the way from aluminum rolls to finished vehicles at the factory. Everything begins with its massive Schuler press servo tandem line. This is the stamping press that intends to stamp 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 pressure presses in the United States.
Schuler press is so large that it is difficult to take in with a single look. We walked around the Schuler press and were able to see a transition of the deformations it uses to stamp out parts. Matching sets of nozzles are used in Schuler to knock out uniform aluminum parts even faster than the one required by the manufacturer, thanks to many improvements made by Tesla after launching the press. (See the 4 other video clips above to look at this.)
Schuler may be the first of its kind in the United States, but Tesla did not use it as an excuse to vomit production slowly. Instead, the Tesla team installed and ordered the Model 3 servo press in ~ 25% less time than the fastest installation Schuler has ever done before. And that was just the starting point. Tesla continued to investigate every single piece of the press, making small tweaks and changing along the way.
When printing the press, Tesla completely reworked the conveyor belts to accommodate more functionality in less space. The company did this by replacing the two conveyor belts that came with the press with four shorter belts that fit better into free space.
Changes like this and more allowed Tesla to increase the press speed from 12 beats per minute to 14 beats per minute, a 16% improvement. It translates into more throughput from an extremely expensive equipment and less capital required to scale up production. In terms of context, Tesla can now produce body panels and stampings from the Schuler press at twice the speed as its model X stamping line and a four times the frequency of the older model S production lines.
After getting out of the stamp press, body panels and stampings are then manually inspected by a team of workers, with any imperfections being bent or flagged for correction before being filed in waiting stands. The racks of finished parts are then stored in an adjacent building until the body shop is ready to begin welding them together into the body of the car.
A selection of the finished parts is drawn for quality assurance testing, where they are run through a vision system that checks them against a digital template. The multiple levels of quality control aim to eliminate deficiencies due to the press section, which means a better product for customers and lower total cost of production for Tesla. Quality is one of the calculations we can all get behind.
After the press section, we headed into the animal's heart. The hiking trail snarled and turned so much that my head began to swim, and before I could get my stores, the process engineer who was our guide appeared with a smile on his face. He explained that he would take us on a tour of the body of commerce, which, unlike popular belief, is not the part of the store where Elon and the other Teslateers go to be demolished.
The body shop is in fact, where Tesla turns body panels into fully assembled auto bodies. Each part of the store consists of tightly packed robots that look like they came straight out of the last Transformers movie. In each section, an army of these robots attacks a particular set of tasks that grab body parts and inspect, fit, weld or glue them together in a finished car frame.
Tesla told us that the model 3 body line is 90% automated and has over 1000 robots, which is not hard to believe after visiting the factory. That figure takes on a whole new meaning when you see all the robots in reality, build cars, move parts and weld seams. As the model 3 bodies are assembled, a team of 47 robots is hard at work at a dozen inline scanning stations measuring 1,900 points in each car body to ensure that the cars coming from the line meet Tesla's demanding standards. Take it, panel holes.
Build on the philosophy described above in this article, where automation fits well into tasks involving rigid parts and repetitive tasks that can be ergonomically unfriendly or could result in high Impact quality variations, the body trade is about automation. Body panels are fed into the process from storage sleeves and quickly assembled as parts from a Lego Technic kit, with bends of welding slag flying through the air (behind the guards) that separate the process.
As we moved into the storehouse production line, beautiful polished metal bodies emerged from the whirl of robots, provoking a smile of recognition from our group. The Transformer robot team was extremely effective in shifting lots of mass panels into a single case that had a striking resemblance to my own Tesla Model 3 in the parking lot.
A seat with any other name
We took a walk down the street to meet some of Tesla's interior and seating experts at the company's "second to none" seat factory. Tesla's decision to produce its own seats was another sharp diversion from traditional car manufacturers. It is yet another example of Tesla's ability to draw difficult production tasks internally, and the result is an outstanding vertical integration into its manufacturer.
The decision was originally made in response to a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo. There are four primary seat builders who build seats for the automotive industry, but in typical Tesla fashion, they found that they needed higher quality, lower costs and more flexibility than the suppliers could offer. Then Tesla took places in the house by hiring some of the best in the automotive and seat industry.
The model 3-seat factory was originally built with capacity for two seat mounting lines with a total production capacity of 10,000 seats per week (5,000 per line). However, since its inception, Tesla has its first assembly line been able to squeeze out 7,000 seats a week from the first single line. It is especially relevant when looking at the high percentage of shared components between model 3 and the newly revealed model Y.
This means that a 40% improvement in single-line throughput and has continued to ramp up Tesla's car production without had to install the second line. Although that day is approaching as Model 3 production continues to ramp up. CapEx is also positively impacted, as Tesla could probably achieve the same rate on the other line, effectively buying two lines and getting almost a third line worth of production capacity for free, thanks to the improvements it has made on the first two lines. Zach will soon publish quite a bit on the wonders of the seat factory alone.
Keep up to date here CleanTechnica for a comprehensive overview of everything we experienced at the factory, including some amazing video footage.  Related: Tesla vertical integration unlocker hidden flexibility and innovation – #CleanTechnica Field Trip