From colonizing Mars to the hyperloop, when it comes to grand innovative ideas, there are few who can rival Elon Musk in the world of science and technology. The manufacturing side of Tesla has been one such focus of Musk’s vision.
For some background, Tesla, the electric vehicle and clean energy company, was founded in 2003. Elon Musk, also known for SpaceX and the Boring Company, serves as the CEO of the company and has had an active role in its growth and widespread popularity.
The electric cars that Tesla currently has on the market include the Model S, Model 3, Model X, and Model Y.
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Apart from being the leading manufacturer of electric vehicles, Tesla also produces renewable solar energy solutions and batteries.
Recently, Tesla has been making waves with its manufacturing technology and production process. After Tesla saw the third quarter in 2020 giving its best-ever quarter results, and the setting up of the world’s largest die casting machine, the success of Tesla, and its operations, is becoming unquestionable.
So let's look at this cutting edge manufacturing revolution that is underway at Tesla, its origins, impacts, and future.
Early Manufacturing Innovations at Tesla
It has often been said that for Musk, and therefore for Tesla, the manufacturing process is equally important as what is being manufactured. In this view of things, revolutionizing the manufacturing process isn’t just a means for creating better products, but a crucial priority in itself.
In spite of Musk’s enthusiasm for manufacturing innovation, or rather because of it, Tesla has had a bumpy history in the production department. The build quality of Tesla cars have been heavily criticized in the past, and the previous iterations of Musk’s plans fizzled out.
The first vision of manufacturing innovation in Tesla was Musk’s “Alien Dreadnought” concept first appearing in 2016. This was an almost completely automated factory setting. But the concept in practice failed initially when tried with the production of Model S, and a human-assisted production line had to be set up to clean up the mess.
But with the rise of success in recent times, the Alien dreadnought is apparently rekindled. Musk recently described Tesla’s current factories as “Version 0.5 of the Alien Dreadnought.”
The Machine that Makes Machines
“The competitive strength of Tesla long-term is not going to be the car; it's going to be the factory.”
- Elon Musk
To Musk, the factory is the “machines that make machines,” an idea he talked about in a 2016 shareholders meeting. This vision originates from Musk’s desire for improving the density of products as well as the exit velocity of products from factories, and to focus more on the efficiency gains that can be obtained by improving the production process. In other words, shifting the focus from improving the machine, to improving the machine that makes the machines.
In building vehicles, this has caused Tesla to shift away from the way cars have been made for years- which are mostly variations of the "Toyota Production System"- and go towards a more vertically integrated system.
Tesla’s automated assembly line with robots assembling the frame of a car. (Source: Tesla)
This concept was also supported by ventures like the acquisition of Perbix, a company that designs and builds the kind of machinery that Tesla needed- highly automated machinery capable of large volume, large velocity production.
In the construction of Tesla’s gigafactories, the machines that build machines are becoming less and less of a saying and more of literal reality. Production rates are set to increase exponentially with these developments. Elon Musk’s ambitious goal is to reach a production volume of 20 million vehicles per year probably by 2030, with “consistently excellent execution.”
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Tesla has several locations for manufacturing all throughout the world and even more planned.
Tesla’s Fremont factory is its oldest location, and even with its widespread expansions, still remains its most active, versatile, and central hub of operations. It employs more than 10,000 employees and manufactures all models of electric cars that Tesla has in the market.
Gigafactories are massive scale production facilities of Tesla that are characterized by features like high volume and velocity of manufacturing, high degree of automation, specificity of products, and running on renewables. Musk first coined the term in 2013 and said that it would produce outputs similar to “all lithium-ion production in the world in one factory".
Giga Nevada: The original Tesla Gigafactory, Giga Nevada produces electric motors and battery packs for Tesla’s Model 3 electric cars. It is the highest volume battery plant in the world. Even though it began production back in 2016, it is said that Giga Nevada is only 30% complete, and when completed it will be the biggest facility in the world.
Giga New York: Gigafactory 2 in Buffalo, New York produces products for the generation and storage of solar energy. This facility is key to maintaining Tesla’s focus on a sustainable and renewable future.
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Giga Shanghai: Assembly of Tesla cars for distribution in China takes place in Gigafactory 3 in Shanghai, China, established in 2018. Plans to expand the plant are underway, and currently, the factory produces around 500,000 units annually.
Giga Berlin: There are also two gigafactories currently under construction and not yet operational. Once is situated in Berlin, Germany, and is expected to begin production in a year or so. Tesla says that “Gigafactory Berlin-Brandenburg will be the most advanced high-volume electric vehicle production plant in the world.”
Giga Texas: The other planned gigafactory is Gigafactory 5 or Giga Texas. Musk has reportedly said that once complete, this facility will be an “ecological paradise.”
Tesla’s key factory locations as of 2021 (Operational and unfinished projects)
In addition to the factories operating and under construction- there are rumours of several other potential locations for Tesla factories. Nothing substantial has surfaced- but it is speculated that Tesla may scout for another location somewhere in Asia; Japan, South Korea, or Indonesia, one in India, and another in the UK.
World’s Largest Die Casting Machines
“With our giant casting machines, we are literally trying to make full-size cars in the same way that toy cars are made.”
- Elon Musk
Musk said this in a tweet in January. The way Tesla uses die casting has been likened to 3d printing. In the same way small components and prototypes are 3d printed, an entire car chassis can be made. This gets Tesla increased margins and output.
Tesla’s die casting operations are perhaps the most groundbreaking of their production processes, the scale of which is never seen before, least of all in the automotive industry.
When talking about Tesla’s Giga casting methods, Musk has said for the Model Y, it gives 40% savings of rear underbody cost and makes the car with 79 fewer parts, creating the entire rear body as a single piece out of a special aluminium alloy.
These are the largest high-pressure die casting machines of the world produced by the Idra Group and being increasingly used in Tesla operations. They have a cycle time of around 90 seconds, which ultimately results in a production rate of around 1,000 castings per day, per machine.
Tesla shared a video of the largest of its kind back in February. It was said that “it can cast front & rear vehicle underbodies in a single piece each — down from 70+ parts for the same sections previously.” Set up in Tesla’s Fremont location, it is used for the production of Tesla’s Model Y.
Tesla’s die cast machine at work. (Source: Tesla)
In Giga Texas, the entire exoskeleton of the cybertruck will be made out of a single piece of sheet metal. This is a remarkable feat, when compared with legacy automakers who still assemble thousands of parts to make one complete vehicle. This also lets Tesla make the cybertruck much more affordable than its contemporaries, and demands can also be met swiftly.
Although it is still not economically feasible to use 3d printing for car parts, it may soon be so. Job listing for Giga Nevada shows that Tesla is looking for employees with additive manufacturing specializations.
Tesla’s manufacturing revolution is characterized by the use of technology- using AI for automation, robots, large scale die casting, additive manufacturing, and bold use of new and innovative ideas.
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So what is Tesla making with all of these manufacturing innovations in place? Tesla reportedly has several exciting projects lined up for the future.
Musk has confirmed that a more affordable and compact electric car, costing just 25,000 dollars, is also in the works. This could open up the market even more and succeed in strengthening Tesla’s hold on the EV industry.
A preliminary sketch of the compact and affordable electric car model from Tesla posted in January 2020. (Source: Tesla)
Another project being undertaken to work with the spread of Tesla electric vehicles is Tesla restaurants, movie theatres, and other facilities. These are being planned to be built around Tesla supercharging stations.
Tesla’s Full Self Driving program is also set to be available soon for beta testing by select customers. Musk has also repeatedly talked about setting up an autonomous taxi service.
Tesla’s manufacturing revolution may completely change the way automobiles, and other products, are being made.
Even though Tesla’s production process seems groundbreaking, there are those who do not fully believe in its efficacy. There have always been critics who take everything Musk claims with a grain of salt. Internal reports from Tesla itself have sometimes been at odds with Musk’s claims- case in point, a recent report says that Tesla admits Musk was exaggerating the practicality of Tesla’s self-driving cars. And although Tesla had a great last year, Tesla stock has been described as volatile and affected by too many uncertainties.
But even if Musk’s grand ambitions have lagged or fallen short in the past, it doesn't seem that the manufacturing revolution of Tesla is bound for that road.