Friday, January 18, 2019

Journey to the heart of Tesla's gigafactory

The highway winds gently between the bleached hills: on this gray day of January, the snow chased wild horses that usually graze there, in the middle of the desert. When suddenly, the white building surmounted by a red band appears in the distance. A building adorned with legends and mysteries: it is here, 35 kilometers from Reno, Nevada, that the heart of the industrial device of Tesla beats.

Welcome to the "gigafactory" of the electric car manufacturer, the first of the name, which prides itself on producing more batteries today than all the other car manufacturers gathered in the world. The excitement is palpable in the small group of journalists who are about to discover the scene: it's the first time since its production started, there are just two years, Tesla opens its doors to media European.


What strikes upon arrival is immensity. The giant L-shaped factory already occupies nearly 180,000 square meters on the ground - the equivalent of 33 football fields. And still, it reaches only 30% of its projected size: the model of the lobby has a huge hexagon. "As the lines extend over three floors, it will eventually occupy 1.2 million square meters of production floor space and will become the largest building in the world", says Chris Lister, director of plant operations.

We have not slept much in recent months

Entering Tesla a year and a half ago, this former PepsiCo has not had the easy task since his arrival. This is where the batteries and engines of the Model 3, the first production vehicle of the Elon Musk firm, are produced. And it is here that a good part of the bottlenecks that occurred as early as the autumn of 2017 slowed down the ramp-up of the vehicle's production. To the point that Tesla missed his goals several times and ran into bankruptcy in the spring. "We have not slept much in recent months," confesses smiling the leader.

Reno's "gigafactory" produces Model 3 batteries and motors, as well as Powerwall and Powerpack stationary batteries. - Mikolaj Walczuk
Reno's "gigafactory" produces Model 3 batteries and motors, as well as Powerwall and Powerpack stationary batteries. - Mikolaj Walczuk

The machine that makes the machine

Today, the lines are running at full speed, 24 hours a day. In the fourth quarter of 2018, Tesla produced an average of 4,850 Model 3, compared with 4,300 in the previous quarter. "It was a huge challenge, He said. And we keep up the pace. " Objective, to ensure the deliveries of Model 3 in Europe, which should start next month. Including the stationary batteries also produced here (the famous Powerwall for residential use, and Powerpack for industry), production reached an annualized rate of 20 GWh last June - and analysts believe that the goal, ultimately , a rate of 35 GWh per year has already been reached end 2018.

To achieve this, it was necessary to review the organization in some places and return to excessive automation - whereas the "gigafactory" was to be, according to the vision of Elon Musk, "The machine that makes the machine". The contrast is striking. On certain lines, such as the manufacture of motors or the assembly of sills (where the batteries are integrated), it is a ballet of robots, huge articulated arms pivoting and tilting rhythmically, which welcomes the visitor. Without a human, or almost, in sight. But on others, operators are ubiquitous.

Some lines, such as module assembly, are largely automated. - Mikolaj Walczuk
Some lines, such as module assembly, are largely automated. - Mikolaj Walczuk

Integrated supply chain

The assembly of the batteries in module, in particular, has been reorganized. "There was too much going back and forth between different stations, too many passages through the elevators. And some tasks, such as cable assembly, are more suitable for human manipulation. We had to simplify the process, explains Chris Lister. Even though yellow dotted lines marked with an "AGV route" sign abound on the floors of the immense corridors, the AGVs (for "automated guided vehicles", these automated carriages which proliferate in the most modern automobile factories) still seem rare.

For efficiency, Tesla has chosen to host its suppliers, first and foremost Panasonic, which produces cells lithium-ion batteries - small tubes 6.5 cm long and 1.8 cm of diameter. "But it's not the only one: there are also other partners, like the French company Valeo, which manufactures cooling tubes for the modules", says Chris Lister. This is a scoop because Tesla generally prohibits its suppliers from mentioning any link. "This integration of the supply chain not only reduces logistical costs, but also solves problems more easily", He continues.

Bright open spaces

To promote communication, closed offices are prohibited. People dedicated to administration, engineering or planning work behind raised offices, in open spaces bright, surrounded by windows. But here, no gyms or relaxation as on campus "tech companies".

North-oriented to favor GPS signals, the plant is also expected to operate entirely with renewable energies - using solar panels on the roof or wind turbines. For now, only a small part of the roof is covered with panels, and Tesla remains connected to the network. Hard to fight on all fronts.

Anne Feitz, in Reno

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