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It might seem a bit counter-intuitive: humans are notoriously unreliable at performing a bunch of repetitive manufacturing tasks. Human visual inspectors regularly miss 20 percent of defects, but this number can go up significantly when humans are poorly trained, tired, or frankly, just don’t feel like doing their job well on any given day. Wouldn’t a machine that is following a program be an upgrade, every time?
Usually not. Even today’s most advanced assembly line robots can be flexible in some ways, but are not yet infinitely flexible like humans are. Interestingly, consistency and quality are almost never the reason manufacturers look to robots; it’s usually about reducing costs. There are certainly exceptions, such as with semiconductor or chip fabrication, where it’s not possible to make the parts “by hand” and automation from day one is the only option (one that causes the length of development schedules to explode). Ultimately, desire to reduce human headcount is the main driver of automation, and depending on the industry, factories expect to make their money back over 18 to 48 months through a combination of savings on wages and increased throughput since fully automated lines can often produce parts faster.
Does that mean that Tesla’s quest to automate an entire factory as a key competitive advantage is a fool’s errand? Not at all, it’s brilliant. It’s easy to see the logic that it might be easier to design a product to be fully automated from day one. It’s true: you need to design the product with automated assembly in mind in order to ever get there. But the mistake is in thinking that once you’ve built one unit — whether it’s a car or a cell phone — that building millions just means dumping a lot of robots on the line. In actuality, product design is a messy process. I was a product design engineer at Apple for nearly six years, and since then have seen the inside of many processes as CEO of a manufacturing data company. In the consumer electronics industry, it takes multiple iterations of the entire product before it’s even possible to consistently build it with human hands. All during that phase, geometric and other changes are being made, sometimes many times each day. Human operators are really flexible and can quickly adjust to these changes — usually a quick conversation about what changed and how their task needs to change is enough. Robots are rigid — that “quick conversation” is now a multi-hour reprogramming session, often with an expensive consultant. Nothing kills productivity on a development line like automated equipment. I’ve seen this first hand. I’ve also seen that equipment be the first thing ripped out in the next generation of the product. Even though Model 3 is in “production,” it’s clear from Elon Musk that the iteration phase is still very much underway. As Elon said, “humans are underrated.”
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