Posted on May 02, 2017 by Charles Morris
More tangible evidence of Tesla’s Model 3 ramp-up appeared last week, as Electrek published photos of a massive shipment of robots being unloaded at the company’s Fremont factory. The (apparently illicit) pix are courtesy of an anonymous “field service engineer” for the German firm KUKA Robotics,” who will be installing “467 robots and 21 KL slides” over the next few weeks. For comparison, Elon Musk has said that the current production line had a total of 542 robots at the start of Model X production.
Above: KUKA robots at Tesla's factory in Fremont, CA (Source: Motley Fool via Tesla)
The latest batch of bots is only one part of the production system that Tesla is assembling to build its upcoming mid-priced sedan. Two production lines for Model 3 inverters are on their way to Fremont from Tesla Advanced Automation Germany (the former Grohmann Engineering, which Tesla acquired a few months ago).
There are several different species of automata in service at Fremont and the Gigafactory, including production robots from both KUKA and FANUC, as well as autonomous indoor vehicles (AIVs) from Adept. Electrek has assembled some cool pictures and video of the cast of characters.
Above: New KUKA robots spotted at Tesla factory (Image: Electrek)
Tesla’s ultimate vision is of a factory that looks like an “alien dreadnought,” as Musk has been calling it. The line that will begin Model 3 production will be Version 0.5 of the dreadnought, and Tesla hopes to have a completely human-free Version 3 up and running in a few more years. “By Version 3, it won’t look like anything else,” Musk told stock analysts last August. “You can’t have people in the production line, otherwise you drop to people speed. So there will be no people in the production process itself. People will maintain the machines, upgrade them, and deal with anomalies.”
And speed is of the essence. Tesla’s future depends on being able to ramp up to high-volume production quickly. The main pillar of its strategy for doing so is making the production process more efficient – “building the machine that makes the machine.”
Above: New KUKA robots being installed at Tesla factory (Image: Electrek)
Musk sees a tremendous opportunity to increase the velocity at which Teslas roll off the assembly line. In fact, in an interview with Y Combinator, Musk said he believes that the company should be able to increase the speed of its production line by 20 times. As impressive as today’s line looks, it has “a relatively lower level of automation compared to what the Gigafactory will have and what Model 3 will have,” said Musk.
“Actually our speed on the line is incredibly slow - it’s maybe five centimeters per second. I’m confident we can get to at least one meter per second, so a 20-fold increase. One meter per second, just to put it into perspective, is a slow walk or a medium-speed walk,” Musk explained.
Above: KUKA robots are unpacked and caught on camera at Tesla factory (Image: Electrek)
And speed-loving Musk has even faster things in mind. On a conference call in June, he predicted that “the exit rate of cells from the Gigafactory will be faster than bullets from a machine gun.” It’s an apt metaphor for a production system that will employ only a handful of humans to build cars that don’t need human drivers.
Tesla’s robots aren’t in human form, like Rosie, who served the coffee on The Jetsons, or Giskard, the robot who casually engineered the destruction of the Earth (but for the ultimate good of mankind) in an Asimov novel. However, the tendency to anthropomorphize them is strong. Tesla has indulged in a bit of this - some of the robots at the Fremont factory are named for members of the X-Men.
Above: A KUKA robot faces off against one of the best table tennis players of all time, Timo Boll, in two marketing videos (Youtube: KUKARobotGroup)
In a pair of commercials for KUKA robots, German table tennis star Timo Boll challenges an automaton to a game, then to a sort of MTV-style musical miming session. Needless to say, the Watson of manual dexterity mops up the floor with the brash and puny human. In the real world, of course, a robot’s intricate dance is controlled by a set of pre-recorded instructions. Industrial robots are not expected to threaten the livelihoods of ping-pong champions or classical pianists any time soon (that would be artificial intelligence, which is another story).