Tesla Failing At Manufacturing

The failure seems to be rather obvious at this point.
This La Times article discusses some of the issues.
Tesla’s problems come from the fact that neither Musk nor most of the top Tesla top people are car guys. They are enthralled with the gee whiz technology of electric cars, but don’t really understand cars and really don’t understand how to manufacture in a mass production environment.

I started this post several months ago, but sat on it to see how things developed. Here’s the article that set the post off. This manufacturing engineer thinks that there are real issues with Tesla’s manufacturing floor.

In order to be successful, any product, regardless of its performance and technology advancements, must meet the economic test. It must be manufacturable at a price-point which both moves it in the market, and returns revenue to cover its cost of capital. In this area, Tesla is a complete economic failure.

This failure first came to my attention a number of years ago when a friend posted a video of Tesla’s manufacturing operation. It’s a very high-tech automation and looked very impressive. My friend was very impressed with it. I soon brought him down to reality. I told him it not only was a disaster, but I also told him why.

While the high-tech automation is very impressive – I am an engineer so I certainly appreciate the complexity and striking view of a highly automated factory – it actually illustrates extraordinarily bad business decision-making. In a recent Forbes article, it noted that Musk made the bold comment that Tesla would “out Toyota-Toyota when it comes to lean manufacturing.”[1] Good luck on that one. Tesla is not even making good business and capital expense decisions, let alone any remote understanding of executing and managing a version of a lean business model.

Jeff Liker, professor of emeritus of the University of Michigan’s engineering school and one of the most noted researchers and writers on the Toyota business model, notes that Tesla “has struggled to manufacture their stunningly-designed (though not designed for manufacturability) vehicles with a high degree of quality.”[2] Dr. Liker’s comments on Tesla’s issues are substantiated by NBC News siting Tesla’s recent recall and dramatic drop in stock price. According to NBC News, Tesla has recalled half of the cars it has ever built.[3]

Here’s the video discussed in the article.

Finding stories that say the same things is fairly easy.
How big a screwup this has become is evident by the fact that they are still trying to fix line issues, building a line in a tent to bugs and are having fire issues because of an overloaded or poorly thought out waste disposal management plan.

Contrast Tesla’s top down approach with Toyota’s
Toyota does things with a rather different approach. Some of that is cultural. The Japanese emphasis quality and being excellent to a large degree. but I think that it’s more that Musk and his whiz kids are used to technical solutions and don’t really understand when they don’t apply. That works in the software world where Musk and the rest came from where they weren’t making anything tangible. But robots have limitations. For an automated line to work perfectly, everything has to be very consistent. In a car, made from sheet metal, those tight tolerances are not really possible.
Contrast Toyota’s assembly methods with Tesla’s.
Here’s the stamping press

Note the number of checks on a die before it’s used and how Toyota buys prestamped blanks rather than raw sheet. This leaves less waste at the plant.

At least they did things that way at that plant. Here’s another video.

Again, how Toyota treats it’s employees and how they give them ownership and responsibility. This is the essence of the continuous improvement process. This ownership and responsibility empower employees and allows Toyota to correct mistakes and fix errors before they become real problems. Toyota isn’t afraid to use robots, but they see them as tools rather than replacements for people.
When push comes to shove, after all the gee whiz batteries and motor, the fancy electronics and software, the Tesla is a car that has to follow all the same rules as all the other cars when it is being manufactured.
Musk said that he wanted to be like Henry Ford with his Model T. What he should have understood was that Henry Ford’s path to the Rouge was relentless and continuous improvements, along with a lot of experimentation and looking for new ways to do things. If you look at early pictures of Highland Park, it is obvious that every part of the Model went through numerous manufacturing changes and relentless retooling in a very short time in search of ever increasing productivity without sacrificing quality.
Here’s a book which shows how things went.

If Elon Musk wants to make Tesla a realistic venture, he is going to have to pursue better quality and process control. He should have looked at how Ford started and not how things finished up. Toyota is the gold standard for manufacturing for a reason. Musk should learn from what they do, not repeat the same mistakes that the US automakers did in the 1960’s.
The Model 3 teardown.

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