- Tesla has had trouble with the machines at its California car factory in recent years, 10 people who worked at Tesla between 2017 and now told Business Insider.
- They described frequent breakdowns from a wide variety of machines involved in areas like paint application, assembly, welding, and conveyance.
- Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
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Before Tesla started making its Model 3 sedan in 2017, Elon Musk, the electric-car maker’s CEO, laid out a vision for its Fremont, California, assembly plant to become the factory of the future. By gradually replacing human labor with machines, Tesla would lower costs and improve efficiency.
But when General Motors tried a similar strategy in the 1980s, it backfired, as robots sprayed paint on each other and welding machines damaged vehicle bodies. Tesla‘s efforts met a similar fate, as Model 3 production got off to a much slower start than the company had predicted. The delays were so bad, Tesla nearly went bankrupt, and Musk later admitted he was wrong for trying to lean so heavily on automation.
While Tesla appears to have struck a more effective balance between human workers and robots in the years since, mechanical problems have been a constant theme at the Fremont factory, current and former Tesla employees told Business Insider. Ten people who worked at Tesla between 2017 and the present-day described frequent breakdowns from a wide variety of machines involved in areas like paint application, assembly, welding, and conveyance.
Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
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Two current production employees said that in December a machine at the Fremont factory would break down about twice a day. And a former Model 3 assembly-line worker who left Tesla during the fourth quarter of last year said in the months before his departure, a machine that lifted wheel-well liners to the production line would break down four times a week, while a robot that inserted the Model 3’s front seats broke down as many as five times in a single day.
Those numbers are much higher than at a typical auto factory, which may go over a month between machine breakdowns, said Sandy Munro, the CEO of the manufacturing consulting firm Munro & Associates and a former Ford executive.
“The machines almost never go down,” he said.
For Tesla, part of the problem may lie in a lack of maintenance. Tesla does not perform a lot of preventive maintenance on machines in the Fremont factory so that it can maximize production numbers, five current and former Tesla employees said. The lack of built-in maintenance time has meant repairs amount to Band-Aids, rather than long-term fixes, workers said.
That wasn’t the case when Tesla’s Fremont factory was run from 1984 to 2010 by NUMMI, a joint venture between Toyota and GM, four former NUMMI employees said.
“Tesla does not push for super highly skilled maintenance people to be there on the spot like Toyota did,” Richard Kellner, who worked in quality control at NUMMI and at Tesla until 2017, said. At Tesla, “they would measure their downtime in hours, if not days, per year, where Toyota would measure their downtime in minutes per year because Toyota would do preventive maintenance regularly.”
Other current and former Tesla employees who also worked at NUMMI or Toyota, outside of the NUMMI joint venture, shared similar impressions, saying each company could do more preventive maintenance because they gave their production lines more downtime.
“It was a lot more organized,” a current Tesla production lead said of NUMMI. “You didn’t have a lot of managers or team leads running around trying to get the machines working. On the weekends, the maintenance personnel would have a lot of time to correct a lot of robot issues.”
Robots Read about the other production issues Tesla has faced on BI Prime.
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