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Can Elon Musk and the "alien dreadnought" do the impossible?

From the beginning, Tesla has set out not only to remake the automobile, but also the automaker. The California trendsetter has dispensed with many of the things that are considered staples of the traditional car business, including dealerships with high-pressure sales pitches (hurray!) and massive marketing machines with glitzy ads and free goodies for journalists (boo!).

Above: Tesla Model 3 release candidate spy shot (Twitter: @norcalnick)

This concept is not unique to Tesla - it’s a standard part of the disrupter’s playbook. Legacy industries spend much effort and money on things that were important decades ago when those industries were founded, but in many cases, advances in technology and changes in society have made those things unnecessary or even counter-productive.

Could it be that human factory workers are another of those outmoded concepts? Since Henry Ford pioneered the assembly line over a century ago, factories have gradually become more automated, and over the past couple of decades, that transition has shifted into high gear. Modern auto factories are showcases for robotic technology, which has vastly improved productivity.

The robotics revolution was well under way before Tesla came on the scene. Many consider Toyota to be the leader in terms of maximizing productivity through technology and efficient production techniques. The pupil has learned much from the master - Tesla purchased its Fremont factory from Toyota in 2010 at a bargain price, and the two companies worked together for several years, as Tesla provided battery packs for Toyota’s RAV4 EV. “Toyota’s been quite helpful as we ramp up production,” JB Straubel told the SAE in 2013. “They’re among the best companies in the world in running a large-scale manufacturing enterprise. They have it down to a science and know what the pitfalls are.”

Above: Kuka robots do their work at the Tesla factory (Image: Tesla)

Today, Tesla’s manufacturing facilities are as technologically advanced as any in the world. Elon Musk has said that 542 robots were working on the Fremont line at the start of Model X production, and KUKA Robotics began installing 467 more in May. According to a recent Forbes article, production at the plant has increased by 400% since 2012. But, as always, Musk wants more - much more. He envisions an assembly line with no human workers at all. “You can’t have people in the production line, otherwise you drop to people speed,” he told stock analysts last August. “So there will be no people in the production process itself. People will maintain the machines, upgrade them, and deal with anomalies.”

The factory of the future, which Musk calls the “alien dreadnought,” will debut with the start of Model 3 production, and Tesla hopes to have a completely human-free Version 3 up and running in a few more years. Elon is a keen reader of science fiction, and he surely has mixed emotions about unleashing this dreadnought on the world - factories that need no human workers have been a staple of dystopian parables at least since Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, published in 1952.

Whatever the implications for human society, for Tesla, maximum automation may not just be desirable - as Forbes and others have noted, it may be a necessity. The company plans to produce 500,000 vehicles in 2018 (or more - its forecasts have actually been inching up over the past few months). Current annual production stands at about 100,000. Clearly, this sort of growth isn’t going to be achieved by making a few incremental improvements - such a quantum leap is going to require remaking the production process.


Above: Tesla's projected production ramp (Image: Bloomberg)

Redesigning “the machine that makes the machine” is a top priority at Tesla. The company’s recent acquisition of Grohmann Engineering (rechristened Tesla Advanced Automation Germany) was one tangible step towards the goal. By Elon’s calculations, the fully automated dreadnought could improve production by five to ten times, just about enough to meet Tesla’s colossal production goals.

But what if his calculations are wrong? Yes, there are skeptics aplenty. Steve Funk, writing in Seeking Alpha, notes that there are constraints having to do with the size of the Fremont plant and the number of hours in a day. Funk has a deep background in automobile manufacturing, and claims to be quite familiar with the Fremont plant from its pre-Tesla days. He predicts that the company will be able to produce at most 230,000 units of Model 3 in 2018, well short of Tesla’s forecast of over 400,000.

Mr. Funk presents some cogent points. Tesla’s robots are the same ones used by other, more experienced automakers, which are not able to reach anything like the throughput numbers that Tesla is counting on. The Robotics Industries Association estimates that there are currently 265,000 robots at work in US factories, and Tesla is not the only company that works hard to exploit any opportunity for greater efficiency.


Above: Kuka robots working away at the Tesla factory (Image: Hybrid Cars)

However, before you bet against Musk and his merry men, consider again the statement at the beginning of this article. The Prophets of Palo Alto do not rely on conventional auto industry wisdom, but rather on “first principles” thinking, which emphasizes starting from a clean slate, free from pre-existing ideas. To put it another way, Musk and company don’t accept that anything is impossible unless the laws of physics make it impossible.

Is it possible for an assembly line to disgorge automobiles as fast as a human can walk, or battery cells “faster than bullets from a machine gun?” We shall see.