Power trip: Behind the scenes of Tesla’s huge car factory

Tesla is a company with massive ambitions. Its creator Elon Musk wants to revolutionise the transport industry with electric cars such as the Model X and Model 3 – and he wants to support them with a worldwide grid of Tesla Superchargers. Plans that big require time, money and new ways of thinking – and Tesla’s factory is where all those things come together. To discover the engine powering Musk’s vision, we visited Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California – and it’s a 370-acre statement of intent.

From American muscle to American brains

First opened in 1962, the factory was home to GM for 20 years, and the birthplace of iconic cars such as the Pontiac GTO and the Chevrolet Chevelle – but it’s now more Silicon Valley than Route 66. That said, I do get a faint whiff of the historic atmosphere as I leave the upmarket reception area and make my way into the main production space. This isn’t Disneyland, so you don’t just walk up, pay your money and mosey around the plant willy-nilly. This is an invite-only gig, which involves an intricate sign-in process before name tags are printed and passes handed out.tesla_factory_tour_4

The atmosphere is very different to what you’d expect from a high-tech factory. From the receptionist to the man who helps us with the authorisation and the bloke cleaning the toilets, it’s welcoming grins all the way. But the biggest cheesy grin is saved for the man with the chiselled features who drives the little electric train, which somewhat surprisingly isn’t built by Tesla. He explains that this is a wonderful place to work and he looks and sounds like he believes it.

Some of the hard-nosed journalists listening don’t appear to share the sentiment. Nevertheless, we’re all keen to see what’s going on once we’re past the free coffee (Tesla’s very own premium blend “to improve productivity” of course), upmarket snacks and shiny silver logo pins that are scattered across the tables of the briefing room.tesla_factory_tour_2

Tesla bought the factory after GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Although it was valued at $1.3 billion, Tesla got it for a bargain $43 million, and since then the factory’s new owner has made its mark. One thing I immediately notice is the Tesla logo – it’s everywhere, from a giant-sized edition outside through to being emblazoned on the huge presses and robots inside the plant.

Musk and his rapidly expanding workforce also have a bold mission statement: “To accelerate the transition to sustainable transportation”, which in real terms currently stands at the production of around 1,000 of its luxury Model S saloons per week. Before we begin the tour, we’re given a quick look at some significant early models and prototypes in a corner of the factory. There’s a wood composite model of the Roadster, a trio of Model S prototypes, and a collection of cutaways and components that give us a flavour of what goes into a Tesla car.

Recycling old tools for new ideas

The tour proper begins right at the beginning of the manufacturing process, where we’re shown huge aluminium coils that weigh more than 9,000 kilograms a pop. These are unrolled, flattened and cut with lasers before ending up as blanks. From there, it’s on to the pressing area, which utilises both mechanical and hydraulic presses. Many of these have been snapped up from other manufacturers, such as a steel stamping press that was valued at $7-10 million, but was snaffled from Toyota for a relatively bargain-basement £250,000.

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Meanwhile, the mighty Schuler press is so big and loud that seismologists at California’s earthquake-monitoring laboratories claim that it registers on their system when there’s a shift in full swing. This thing really is huge. It’s so big, in fact, that when Tesla wanted to buy the press and ship it halfway across America, they had to dismantle it piece by piece before building it back up again on the west coast. The initial quote to do it had a company suggesting this would take six months.

California’s earthquake labs claim the Schuler press registers on their systems

Elon Musk and his Tesla boffins got the job done in less than one. So now it stands in the factory, seven storeys tall, with three of those buried deep in the ground, ready to pound metal into submission using up to 4,500 tons of force.

And, as you’d expect from the ever-canny Tesla folks, the Schuler press was purchased from a trucking company in Detroit that was going out of business. Valued at $50 million, Tesla got it for just $4 million, although it had to spend the same amount again getting it to the Fremont factory.

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Next up, we’re shuttled past the Plastics Centre, which is another attempt by Tesla to keep as much as possible in-house. Here, eight injection moulding machines apply between 200 and 3,300 tons of pressure in six moulds to produce around 80 parts. Tesla reckons it produces around 90% of the interior trim by going down this route.

As the train rolls through the next cavernous hall, I see the panels and trim being married together as a line of the Model S starts taking shape. Body assembly is done using German Kuka and Japanese Fanuc robots, with some programmed to tackle up to five different manufacturing tasks. Again, it’s this optimum use of equipment that underlines that Tesla is monitoring efficiency very carefully indeed.

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