Tesla’s Gigafactory in Fremont, California is probably one of the most popular car factories in the world. About a decade ago, Tesla was a struggling startup in the automotive industry. It had just narrowly escaped the clutches of bankruptcy. In a stroke of good fortune which, ironically, was caused by an economic crisis that hit the automotive industry hard, Tesla was able to buy a massive factory – which was valued at $1 billion – for just $42 million, a fraction of the original price.
With a factory secured, Tesla set out on a mission to build the most advanced automotive plants in the world. They remodeled the factory extensively, fitting it with state-of-the art equipment including lots and lots of robots.
The Gigafactory’s Model
Working with Tesla, Elon Musk has applied his innovative thinking to revolutionize the process of vehicle production. This can be clearly seen in the way the Fremont Gigafactory operates. Unlike other car manufacturers, which have most of their components sourced from other factories, Tesla makes their cars from scratch.
The factory is built on a piece of land the size 185 football pitches and covers 5.3 million square feet of manufacturing and office space. It is made up of sub-assembly lines that feed the main assembly line with the various individual components of the cars.
Car production in the Tesla factory starts with huge coils of aluminum. Some of this aluminum weighs as much as 20,000 pounds. A robot lifts up these coils from above and feeds them into another machine called the “blanking machine”. The blanking machine uncoils the aluminum and flattens it. Then it uses special tools — including lasers — to cut the uncoiled aluminum into flat sheets called “blanks”. The blanks are then transferred, by robots, from the blanking machine into a giant hydraulic press. This press then stamps the blanks into the required shape. This forms parts of the car such as the doors, hoods, side panels and trunks, which will later be assembled to create the body and chassis of the car.
The Importance of Automation
You’ve probably noticed by now that it seems like robots and other machines are doing quite a lot of the work in the Tesla factory. While there are definitely humans involved in the manufacturing, most of the processes are automated. The factory has about 200 robots of different sizes and complexities. Some robots on the manufacturing floor are small and some are big enough to lift an entire car. Still, some robots are incredibly complex and can carry out delicate tasks and even switch up their tools to perform different sets of tasks. On the other hand, some robots are very simple, with only minimal programming and some proximity sensors. Such “dumb” robots are mainly used to transport heavy items from one part of the Gigafactory to another along a fixed route mapped out by magnetic strips on the floor.
Tesla’s aim with its manufacturing process is to utilize automation to the fullest. The standard for other automobile producing factories is to use robots mainly for heavy lifting or really fast processes. Tesla’s goal is to incorporate state-of-the-art robotics and other technology in as innovative and efficient a way as possible. So even though Tesla has thousands of people employed in the Gigafactory, automation is a key characteristic that shows up in almost every step of the manufacturing process.
Most of the Tesla Gigafactory robots are named after X-Men characters including Cyclops, Wolverine, and Iceman. Each robot is worth at least $50,000.
Putting Together the Pieces
Once the machines are done shaping the aluminum into individual parts that will make up the car body and chassis, these parts are placed on a conveyor belt which sends them to human workers for inspection. After they’ve passed inspection, these parts are sent off to be stored in a huge warehouse.
From the warehouse, the completed parts are taken to the body shop where – you guessed it — robots assemble them. The assembly process begins with the underbody, which is the floor of the car. Afterwards, the sides of the car are added on and finally, the front part is attached as well. This process differs a little with Model 3 production, which is mostly carried out by robots that weld the pieces together using about 5,000 welds. The Model 3 is Tesla’s first affordable car and is meant to be produced on a large scale. This calls for a faster production speed than is required for the Model S and Model X.
With all the pieces put together, the body of the car is formed and is ready to be painted.
A huge robot takes and places the completed body on a conveyor belt that takes it to the painting area. The painting area is a very clean environment where specialized robots carry out multiple pre-paint treatments on the car’s body. At the end, a beautifully painted car body emerges from the painting area and heads to the general assembly line.
Overcoming the Challenge
General assembly seems to be the most taxing part of the production process. Just a few years ago, after revealing the affordable Model 3, Tesla embarked on a mission to increase production of the car from just a few units per week, to 5,000 units. Elon Musk described the process as “production hell” because organizing the assembly line to move that fast was going to be hard.
In an extraordinary step to increase production, Tesla set up a second assembly line under a huge tent in the factory’s parking lot. The tent was bigger than two football fields and operated with more manual power and much less automation. Tesla was eventually able to reach their ambitious goal of producing 5,000 Model 3’s per week. However, they were off-target by six months. And at the end of 2019, with the help of this supplementary tent factory, Tesla was able to roll out over 200,000 cars.
General Assembly Specifics
In the general assembly line, a roller-coaster-like piece of machinery carries car bodies overhead and battery packs, which weigh around 12,000 lbs. each, are hoisted up from below. Workers then align these battery packs with the cars and bolt them in place.
One particularly interesting fact that makes the Tesla Gigafactory stand out from other automobile-producing factories is that instead of a long, continuously moving conveyor belt, which has been the industry standard for at least one hundred years now, Tesla uses “Smart Carts”. The Smart Cart is a cart-like robot designed to carry individual cars and move about the factory as needed, following a magnetic strip on the floor of the factory. Cars on Smart Carts are essentially moving through the factory by themselves, independent of the cars before or behind them.
On the general assembly line, parts from other sub-assemblies are added on to the body of the car with the help of both robots and humans. The car is assembled from the inside out. Wiring is added, insulation, windows, etc. are all added on. All the software programming that is needed for each car is also carried out within the same factory.
Tesla’s car seats are created in-house at a factory a few blocks away from the main factory. Making car seats is one of the few processes that are carried out mostly by human workers. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t some pretty advanced robots involved. Once humans complete the intricate processes of creating the seats, robots help in the final assembly of the seats. Finished car seats are fitted into the car by a special robot which can also switch up its tool set to transform itself from a seat-fitting robot to become a windshield-inserting one.
The End of the Line
At the end of the assembly line, a beautiful-looking, completely functional car emerges. A quality test is carried out on each car to make sure everything is in place and that the car’s performance is up to par. Because of Tesla’s long waiting list, every car that leaves the factory most likely already has an owner.
It takes about 3-5 days for a Tesla model S to go from being a pile of metal to a fully completed car, rolling off the assembly line.
A lot of sub-processes are carried out within the same factory. This is partly because Tesla cars are made up of unique parts, such as the battery packs and battery modules. The fact that almost everything is made under the same roof helps the company to cut costs. It also makes production much faster. This is particularly important because the demand for Tesla cars exceeds the number of cars the factory dishes out. Because of this excess demand, which is set to increase, Tesla plans to ramp up production to 20 million a year by 2030. To reach this goal, the electric car company plans to replicate its current Gigafactory in several different locations. Currently, it has built one such factory in Shanghai and a second one in Berlin is still in the works.
Tesla’s revolutionary car manufacturing process directly results from the company’s choice to avoid the standard methods of other car manufacturers. Instead, the company chose to apply innovative methods to make production as efficient as possible. Tesla has found itself a lovely niche somewhere between being an automotive company and being a tech company. As such, they have revolutionized the way cars are made, potentially setting a new standard for other car manufacturers.