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Suddenly, dozens of robots snap into frenzied action, picking up door panels, welding window pillars, taking measurements, and on and on. This robotic dance is a visceral representation of what Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has dubbed “Alien Dreadnought,” a code name for the factory that evokes an early 20th century warship, but with extraterrestrials.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Tesla, which is sprinting to produce the Model 3 in quantities great enough to turn a profit. But so far, the plant’s choreography has been choppy. The flow at the factory in Fremont, California, is constantly interrupted while robots and humans are trained, retrained, or swapped out. If Tesla can’t make this dance work, it will be remembered as a lesson in the dangers of irrational exuberance for automation. Success, on the other hand, could transform the car industry.
Tesla has consistently missed its production targets since deliveries of the Model 3 began last July. The first major snag was at Tesla’s Gigafactory in Reno, Nevada, where software defects caused robots to fail, meaning that thousands of cells had to be pieced together by hand. Production has steadily improved since then, and Musk told shareholders last week that the company is on track to meet its goal of 5,000 cars a week by the end of June.
Tesla says there isn’t any single problem slowing production down now. Instead, the heavy reliance on automation and new production methods have created a galaxy of smaller problems that must each be addressed individually. Musk’s claim is that once the process is tuned, the company will set a new standard for speed, precision, and scalability in manufacturing.
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