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Can Elon Musk and Tesla reinvent the way cars are made?

FREMONT, California – At the gates of the north wing of Tesla's vast electric car estate, an unusual structure has emerged in recent weeks: a tent about 50 feet high and several hundred feet long, tight gray canvas membrane supported by aluminum columns.

Its purpose is as remarkable as its hasty construction. The semi-permanent structure houses a third assembly line – part of a desperate effort to accelerate the production of Model 3, which has critically criticized Elton Musk, Tesla's CEO, for the company's financial health and immediate future.] Two years ago, Mr. Musk the year 201

8 presented as a breakthrough. After establishing the high-end brand name, the Model S luxury sedan and the Sport Utility Vehicle Model X, Tesla began producing more affordable Model 3 sedans. With a high-tech high-tech assembly process, the company's sales would more than quintuple to half a million vehicles.

That's not how it happened. Tesla had problems with the mass production of batteries and cars. At the end of nearly three months of production, after Tesla started assembling the Model 3 last summer, just 260 machines had rolled off the line, and Mr. Musk said the company had a long period of "manufacturing hell" The Model 3s per month was completed in December, but in the last three months of 2017 only 2,425 were completed.

Since then, Tesla has been trying to iron out kinks in the assembly process, mainly by scraping some complicated robotic machines that prove inappropriate for specific tasks, and employing hundreds of workers to replace them. It's a hectic race in the factory floor to achieve Mr. Musk's goals, which have affected some employees. But when gambling pays off, it will be a big step in the direction of Tesla's bold ambitions: not just being a mass-market automaker, but also reinventing the way cars are made.

"We believe in rapid development," said Mr Musk in an interview. "It's like finding a way or finding a way, if conventional thinking makes your mission impossible, then unconventional thinking is necessary."

And indeed, Mr. Musk is trying to do things that were never done. General Motors, Nissan, BMW, Ford and others have produced electric cars, but have not been able to reduce costs to such an extent that they have become affordable and profitable. In contrast, Mr. Musk has promised investors and customers that Tesla will be able to mass-produce the Model 3, sell versions for only $ 35,000, and earn high profits.

As soon as the Model 3 is up and running, Mr Musk has seen Tesla produce electric vehicles of all shapes and sizes – pickups, semi-trailers and a fast and spacious family car called Model Y. The company's mission, Mr Musk has said on numerous occasions , intended to lead the transition to emission-free means of transport and to change the world.

A recent one-day tour of the Fremont plant showed how Tesla is trying to break standard model automotive practices along the Model 3 production lines. It is looking for ways to reduce the time it takes for robots to weld parts. It even makes seats, a component that most car companies leave to specialized suppliers. And he tries to eliminate bottlenecks and disruptions in the manufacturing process.

For example, in final assembly, Tesla originally used robotic arms to install the Model 3 seats. But the machinery was slow and inconsistent in tightening the screws that secure the seats and connect the wiring that powers them. About a month ago, company representatives said the workstation was modified so that robots position the seats and bypass the workers with screws and attaching sensitive electronic connectors.

Mr. Musk does not have a factory office, but Tesla says he slept there – on the floor in someone else's office or on a couch – while working to streamline Model 3's production. On Thursday, at three o'clock in the morning, when Tesla provided him for a telephone interview, he said he was trying to fix a glitch in the part of the factory where the Model 3 was painted. "The vehicle on which the car is standing comes out of the paint booth a little too quickly for the sensor to detect, and it triggers the sensor, even if everything is fine," he explained.

Tesla engineers are trying to program the sensor so it can work at the accelerated speed. For now, he said, "We have someone standing there just pressing the # 39; & # 39; button to restart it."

The urge to start up quickly put a heavy strain on the company. Several senior executives, some of them in production, have left. Although investors' optimism has remained high – Tesla's market capitalization rates General Motors as the most valued American auto company – its bonds are classified as junk, and the delay in revenue from Model 3 sales has caused analysts to continue to consume money and face the prospect of having to raise additional capital later this year.

"At some point, investors will say," If you do not have a viable economic model, we will not go. "Toni Sacconaghi, analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, said in a recent teleconference with clients.

The dangers of automation

Having made his fortune as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, Mr. Musk was convinced that technology and vision could conquer new frontiers together, be it in space research (with its SpaceX ventu), or a nine-figure sum from its early days Participation in the online payment service PayPal re) or daily transport The replacement of fuel tanks with batteries was only a beginning and he was determined to redesign their production based on the advances of the 21st century in automation.

Dominate well-established automobile companies the process with assembly line workers and then find ways how machines do a part of the job n can. Tesla has done the opposite. He designed a highly automated production line that was populated by more than a thousand robots and other assembly machines.

Ron Harbor, partner of consulting firm Oliver Wyman, noted that in its annual survey, auto factories worldwide use the most efficient manual labor. "The most automated ones are at the bottom of the list," he said.

In some cases, Tesla's automation potential has paid off. A separate production line consisting of Model S and Model X has a series of 14 stations with 17 workers in the area where battery packs and electric motors are connected to the underfloor of the vehicles. For the Model 3, this feature includes only five workstations and no workers at all, said Lars Moravy, director of the chassis technology company.

Dependence on robots has caused headaches for other tasks. For months, Tesla engineers have been trying to get a robot that accurately passes a bolt through a hole to secure a portion of the rear brake. They found an amazingly simple solution: Instead of using a bolt with a flat tip at its threaded end, the engineers switched to a bolt with a tapered point known as the "run-in" that can be passed through the hole. The robot lies a millimeter out of the dead center, Moravy said.

In a very tangible sense, Tesla regards his production line as a laboratory for untested techniques. Over the past few weeks, business leaders have concluded that they could produce Model 3 underbody models with fewer welds than they had previously used. The car is still held together by about 5,000 welds, but the engineers concluded that there were about 300 superfluous and newly programmed robots to assemble the steel underbody without them.

"It is unusual to have already started doing so at this time," said Mr. Harbor, an experienced production expert who has visited most of the world's major automotive plants. "Normally you would make such changes in the prototype phase."

In another attempt to push the boundaries of technology, Tesla sometimes pulls robots off the line and tests them at speeds greater than those specified by the supplier, said Charles Mwangi, Tesla's Director of Bodywork

"We're breaking they actually, to see what the maximum limit is, "Mr. Mwangi said. The idea is to find ways to accelerate production without spending capital on new machines. In the future, instead of adding more machines to increase performance, "we can simply put our gear in," he said.

The willingness to experiment with the production process, even when cars run off the line, is perhaps the most significant thing Tesla defies, according to the conventional wisdom of the industry. Automakers such as Toyota, Honda and G.M. Engineer production lines that can roll out cars or trucks at a rate of about one minute per minute, essentially locking the basic assembly process as soon as they start production. As they make improvements to improve quality or safety at work, they typically make major changes every few years or introduce new techniques as an old model expires and production of a new model begins.

"The first step in quality is stability," said Harbor. "Once you have a stable process that works, you can go back and make improvements."

Tesla, on the other hand, tinkers with its production lines on the fly, and the tent is a strong illustration of this approach. [19659005] Tesla hastily built a third Model 3 production line under the pointed canvas. Like the other two, it takes over the final assembly, when Trim and other finishes are attached to the car. (Tesla did not include the tent in the factory tour.)

Adding a new assembly line, even temporarily, is a rare and risky step in the auto industry. A line hastily built in an untested environment could not reach the quality that Tesla promises.

Two production lines within the plant already exist to handle at least some of these tasks, but they have proved cumbersome and slow down the work Mr. Musk had hoped, partly because Tesla used robots for tasks that were better suited to human Should be left to workers.

Tesla Engineering executives confirm that the company overestimated the speed with which it could produce cars and designed a production system too complicated – a problem that Mr. Musk lamented at the company's shareholder meeting in June.

"One of the biggest mistakes we made was automating things that are super easy for a human, but very difficult for a robot to do," he said. "And when you see it, it looks super stupid, and you're like, wow, why did we do that?"

Most automakers run a single line to build two, three or sometimes four different vehicles, because using a second line would force them to invest in duplicate tools and cut in profit margins.

And a third assembly line, outside the walls of a plant? "I've never heard of this before," said Mr. Harbor. Musk said the capital cost of the line in the tent was minimal because the company used equipment that it already owned. (On Twitter, he called it "scrap we had in warehouses.")

"It does everything the other assembly lines do, but with fewer people, lower labor costs, and much higher uptime," he said. "Our unit costs for vehicles are lower on this line than on the other lines, and we see a higher initial quality."

Whether this remains the case, as Tesla accelerates production, will emerge in a few months if the company reports a profit, as Mr. Musk has promised.

& # 39; build a constant pressure & # 39;

For many years, the Fremont factory was a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors, known as New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. or Nummi. After the bankruptcy of GM, the factory was closed in 2010 and the site was taken over by Tesla.

Today, at the four-million-square-foot plant next to a busy highway, a steady stream of supplies and semi-trailers can be seen, with new departing vehicles. Every afternoon, line workers in matching black trousers with a white Tesla logo on one leg flock from the factory and descend on packed parking lots in the sprawling, bearish suburb.

Workers feel the pressure to accelerate production. In interviews outside the factory, several said they completed 10- and 12-hour days, sometimes six days a week. They report that turnover among line workers is high and sometimes supervisors join during extended shifts of the line.

Jose Moran, a five-year Tesla veteran who has worked as the head of the Model 3 team for the last 10 months. Www.germnews.com/archive/index.php?lang=de "It 'sa constant" How many cars do we have so far? built? "- a constant pressure to build, especially with the Model 3," he said. "It gets desperate sometimes, right now."

One challenge that workers see is the rapid influx of new workers. The company plans to hire around 400 people per week to accelerate the production of Model 3. After Tesla's latest earnings announcement in early May, Mr. Musk said he hopes he eventually has three shifts a day, essentially running around the clock on the assembly line

"Everyone I'm talking to is only two weeks old This month, and these people will not last long, "said Jonathan Galescu, a Model X bodywork repair technician who has been working in the factory for four years.

Mr. Harbor, the manufacturer, says automakers typically train new workers for several weeks before going into production. A large number of new workers can affect quality because they may not do their job properly or notice when problems occur.

New workers at the Fremont plant receive three days of training before working on a production line. This includes a computer-aided virtual training, where they can do their job safely, and a lesson on the area to which they are assigned.

The safety of workers at the Fremont plant was questioned by a non-profit news organization, the Center, for Investigative Reporting, cataloged a series of violations suffered by Tesla factory workers. California's Job Security Watchdog is investigating a recent incident in which a broken-jaw worker went to hospital.

Michael Catura, a 33-year-old battery pack worker who has been with Tesla for four years, said he had wrists received injuries from his shoulder and elbows because the company sometimes relinquished rotating workers to perform various work in the factory floor.

"We have to make sure that people get a good workout," he said, not just "cookie-cutter training." Mr. Moran, Mr. Galescu and Mr. Catura are involved in the efforts of the United Automobile Workers – a group vilified by Mr. Musk – to organize the plant.

Asked about the intensity and the Safety of Tesla's workplace, a company spokeswoman said, "We are very concerned about the well-being of our employees." Tesla's efforts reduced the injury rate by 25 percent last year, and "with each additional month, we continue to improve it."

39; A brainstorm & # 39;

In early June, Mr. Musk said Tesla builds 3,500 Model 3 limousines a week and puts them at 5,000 a week by the end of June. In the interview on Thursday, he expressed confidence that it would approaching the elusive goal, the tempo he needed for the company to make a profit.

Tesla has already spent a lot on the Model 3 assembly process, and modifications mean machines that are designed for Hu Millions of dollars bought are likely to be discarded. Mr. Musk has essentially confirmed this point after the earnings announcement when he said he did not expect the gross margin of Model 3 – the share of revenue withheld from the cost of goods sold – to reach the target of 25 percent by early next year, six that would reach nine months later than previously predicted.

Max Warburton, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, estimates that Tesla spent approximately $ 2 billion to build the Model 3 production line. "This is far more than any other car company spending on new capacity," he said, adding, "$ 2 billion is an incredible amount that can be spent in an existing plant for a second assembly line."

Right now, Tesla generates most of its revenue from Model S and Model X, which are around $ 70,000 and up. Taken together, their worldwide sales amount to about 100,000 vehicles a year – too few to compensate for the billions Tesla has spent on building its gigantic battery factory in Nevada, developing new cars and a semi-trailer, and equipping its car factory.

In other words, the future of the company depends on the production lines that Tesla has set up for the production of the Model 3 – and whether the company can make them drone.

Lauren Hepler contributed to the report.

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