Tesla Chairman and CEO Elon Musk addresses discusses self-driving featur

How Tesla's effort to revamp how cars are made is putting Elon Musk and his company under pressure

Having made his fortune as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur — together with a nine-figure sum from his early involvement within the online-payment service PayPal — Mr. Musk was satisfied that expertise and imaginative and prescient might collectively conquer new frontiers, whether or not in house exploration (with his SpaceX enterprise) or on a regular basis transportation. Replacing gasoline tanks with batteries was only a begin. He was decided to reconceive their manufacturing as nicely, primarily based on 21st-century advances in automation.

Established automobile firms grasp the method with assembly-line staff, and then discover methods for machines to take over among the work. Tesla did the other. It designed a extremely automated manufacturing line populated by greater than a thousand robots and different meeting machines.

Ron Harbour, a companion on the consulting agency Oliver Wyman, famous that in his annual survey ranking auto vegetation worldwide, probably the most environment friendly ones use numerous handbook labor. “The most automated ones are at the bottom of the list,” he mentioned.

In some situations, Tesla’s gamble on automation has paid off. A separate manufacturing line that makes the Model S and the Model X has a collection of 14 stations, with 17 staff, within the space the place battery packs and electrical motors are married to the autos’ underbodies. For the Model three, that perform includes simply 5 work stations and no staff in any respect, mentioned Lars Moravy, the company’s director of chassis engineering.

For different duties, the reliance on robots has proved a headache. For months, Tesla engineers struggled to get a robotic to information a bolt by means of a gap precisely to safe a part of the rear brake. They discovered a maddeningly easy resolution: Instead of utilizing a bolt with a flat tip on its threaded finish, engineers switched to a bolt with a tapered level, generally known as a “lead-in,” that may be guided by means of the outlet even when the robotic is a millimeter off useless middle, Mr. Moravy mentioned.

In a really tangible sense, Tesla views its manufacturing line as a laboratory for untested methods. In latest weeks, company executives concluded they may produce Model three underbodies with fewer spot welds than they’d been utilizing. The automobile is nonetheless held collectively by about 5,000 welds, however engineers concluded that some 300 have been pointless and reprogrammed robots to assemble the metal underbody with out them.

“It’s unusual to be doing that at this point in time when the car is already launched,” mentioned Mr. Harbour, a veteran manufacturing knowledgeable who has visited many of the world’s main auto vegetation. “Normally you’d make changes like that in the prototype stage.”

In one other bid to push the bounds of expertise, Tesla at instances pulls robots off the road and assessments them working at speeds higher than specified by the provider, mentioned Charles Mwangi, Tesla’s director of physique engineering.

“We are actually breaking them to see what the maximum limit is,” Mr. Mwangi mentioned. The thought is to discover methods of accelerating manufacturing with out spending capital on new equipment. In the longer term, reasonably than including extra machines to improve output, “we can just dial up our equipment,” he mentioned.

The willingness to experiment with the manufacturing course of at the same time as cars are rolling off the road is maybe probably the most vital means Tesla is defying the business’s typical knowledge. Automakers like Toyota, Honda and G.M. engineer manufacturing strains that may churn out cars or vans at a fee of about one a minute, and primarily lock within the fundamental meeting course of as soon as they begin manufacturing. While they make tweaks to enhance high quality or employee security, they typically make main adjustments or introduce new methods solely each few years, when an previous mannequin is phased out and earlier than manufacturing of a brand new one begins.

“The first step in auto quality is stability,” Mr. Harbour mentioned. “Once you get a stable process that works, you can go back and make improvements.”

Tesla, in contrast, is tinkering with its manufacturing strains on the fly, and the tent is a stark illustration of that strategy.

Beneath the peaked canvas, Tesla has unexpectedly arrange a 3rd Model three manufacturing line. Like the opposite two, it handles ultimate meeting, when trim and different ending touches are placed on the automobile. (Tesla didn’t embrace the tent on the tour of the plant.)

Adding a brand new meeting line, even quickly, is a uncommon and dangerous transfer within the auto business. A line arrange unexpectedly, in an untested surroundings, may not obtain the standard Tesla guarantees.

Two meeting strains contained in the plant exist already to deal with at the very least a few of these duties however they’ve proved troublesome and carry out the work extra slowly than Mr. Musk had hoped, partially as a result of Tesla used robots for duties that are higher left to human staff.

Tesla engineering executives acknowledge that the company overestimated the speed at which it might produce cars, and designed a manufacturing system that proved to be too sophisticated — an issue that Mr. Musk lamented on the company’s June shareholder assembly.

“One of the biggest mistakes we made was trying to automate things that are super easy for a person to do, but super hard for a robot to do,” he mentioned. “And when you see it, it looks super dumb. And you are like, wow! Why did we do that?”
Most automakers function a single line to make two, three or typically 4 completely different autos, as a result of utilizing a second line would power them to put money into duplicate tooling and minimize into revenue margins.

And a 3rd meeting line, outdoors the partitions of a plant? “I’ve never heard anything like this, ever,” Mr. Harbour mentioned.

Mr. Musk mentioned the capital prices of the road within the tent have been minimal as a result of the company used gear it already owned. (On Twitter he had referred to as it “scrap we had in warehouses.”)

“It does everything that the other assembly lines do but with fewer people, lower labor costs and much higher uptime,” he mentioned. “Our unit cost for vehicles is lower on that line than on the other lines, and we’re seeing higher initial quality.”

Whether that continues to be the case as Tesla accelerates manufacturing shall be revealed in a couple of months if the company reviews a revenue, as Mr. Musk has promised.

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