After missing its target of producing 2,500 Model 3 cars per week at the end of Q1 2018, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has revealed what went wrong: battery production problems – plus too many robots on the production line.
While the production of the batteries used in the Model 3 at Tesla’s Gigafactory was largely responsible for the company’s failure to meet its own production targets, its over-dependence on robotics shares some of the blame, he said.
Musk invited CBS Good Morning to tour Tesla’s factory and discuss the latest news about the Model 3’s troubled production. Asked by CBS whether there were too many robots and not enough human workers on the production line, he agreed:
We had this crazy, complex network of conveyor belts and it was not working, so we got rid of that whole thing.
The CBS video offers a glimpse of the heavily automated nature of Tesla’s manufacturing processes. Musk has boasted in the past of how Tesla is bringing as much of the manufacturing process in house as possible, even going so far as to purchase Perbix, a producer of automated factory equipment.
But it seems that Musk’s ongoing quest for manufacturing precision and efficiency has gone beyond the point of diminishing returns.
Price of innovation – or poor judgement?
In a Tesla shareholders’ meeting in 2016, Musk spoke of his focus on the importance of building “the machine that builds the machine.” However, the tech visionary admits that his company got ahead of itself when it came to its latest electric vehicle:
We got complacent about some of the things we felt were our core technology, we put too much new technology into the Model 3 all at once.
Despite its advanced internals, the Model 3 is set to be the first affordable (starting at $35,000), mass-produced Tesla. But over half a million pre-orders have left the carmaker struggling to meet the demand.
Given the manufacturing challenges, Musk has taken over management of the Model 3 production line himself, often sleeping in the factory.
Despite the obvious pressure he’s under, with weekly production figures now over 2,000 and an expected three or four-fold increase in output over the next quarter, Tesla will be hoping it is now over the worst of its production problems.
Hope for battery lifespans
Despite the battery-related delays for the Model 3, there is good news about existing batteries’ lifespans. Tesla owners on the Dutch-Belgium Tesla Forum have shared the battery performance data of their vehicles, revealing some interesting insights.
The data reveals that while Tesla battery packs lose about five percent of their capacity over a vehicle’s first 50,000 miles, the degradation levels off after that. The trend line on a graph of battery capacity against mileage suggests that the next five percent capacity loss occurs over far greater distances.
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These are tough times for Tesla – despite Musk’s successes elsewhere in 2018, such as with SpaceX and satellite-based broadband. In the past month Tesla has been slammed by the US road safety board, after a fatal crash involving one of its ‘driver-assisted’ vehicles. Tesla has put out a voluntary recall of 123,000 of its Model S vehicles in response.
The company has also had its credit status lowered on Wall Street due to the fallout. Meanwhile, Tesla is haemorrhaging money and investors are growing impatient with the vaunting ambition that attracted them to Musk in the first place.
In striving to innovate at every step of the Model 3’s production, Tesla has put obstacles in its own way and missed production targets. Yet with output finally increasing and over-automation issues being ironed out, the road ahead now looks a little less bumpy.
Meanwhile, the revelations about Tesla’s battery performance are, while informal, certainly encouraging. Given the small sample size and limited mileage, it remains to be seen whether the trend is correct. Anyone with a lithium-battery-powered laptop, or mobile device that’s more than a couple of years old, knows the degradation that this technology usually sees after numerous charge cycles.
Nevertheless, this is reassuring news in the face of the widespread doubts surrounding the lifespan of lithium battery powered electric vehicles. Hopefully, the battery modules taking so long to emerge from Tesla’s Gigafactory will be worth the wait.
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