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Tesla gives update on Model 3 production: battery module now OK, focus on automation update

We got a good a pretty good update about Tesla’s Model 3 production when we obtain an email from CEO Elon Musk to employees about two weeks ago, but investors and reservation holders are keeping a close eye on the important production ramp and want more details.

Tesla gave another update today with the release of its financial results and shareholders letter for the first quarter 2018.

The company specifically address the battery module bottleneck at Gigafactory 1:

“As with all manufacturing, Model 3 production can only go as fast as the slowest part of the entire supply chain and production process. For months, the battery module line was our main production bottleneck. After deploying multiple semi-automated lines and improving our original lines, we have largely overcome this bottleneck. Consequently, we now expect to reach a module production rate of 5,000 car sets per week even before we install the new automated line designed and built by Tesla in Germany. Still, once installed, this new automated module line should significantly lower manufacturing costs. Our automation team in Germany is currently focusing on further capacity expansion where needed.”

Tesla also reiterated the 5,000 units per week target by the end of Q2, but the company warned of more possible downtime to achieve it.

It will reduce the total output during the quarter (though still higher than last quarter), but it will help them have a higher exit rate:

“We continue to target Model 3 production of approximately 5,000 per week in about two months, although our prior experience has demonstrated the difficulty of accurately forecasting specific production rates at specific points in time because of the exponential nature of the ramp. In order to achieve this production rate, we plan to take additional days of downtime during Q2, just like we did in Q1. We have already done this several times during the Model 3 ramp, including once in the third week of April to fix several small, known constraints, enabling higher levels of output. Just before taking this latest downtime, we produced 2,270 Model 3 and 2,024 Model S and Model X vehicles in the prior seven days, which was a new record for us. Furthermore, in the just over two weeks between the beginning of April and the planned downtime, we had produced 4,750 Model 3 vehicles, which was already about half the production of the entire prior quarter. After achieving a production rate of 5,000 per week, we will begin offering new options such as all-wheel-drive and the base model with a standard-sized battery pack.”

The automaker then reiterated the plan to achieve 10,000 units per week from there, but without a stated timeline and instead, they talk about a focus on capital efficiency:

“Once we hit the 5,000 per week milestone, we intend to incorporate our learnings to continue to increase output on our existing manufacturing lines beyond 5,000 units per week, and then in a capital efficient manner to add incremental capacity to ultimately get to a 10,000 unit weekly rate.”

Then the company offered a lengthy comment on automation, which came back into the discourse after Musk admitted that they made mistakes in attempts to over-automate Model 3 production.

Here’s the full statement:

“We’ve spoken at great length about the “machine that builds the machine” and why it is so important to Tesla’s long-term success. Fundamentally, we believe that thinking about a factory in the same way that people think about the product itself creates the potential for a step change in manufacturing that will create enormous benefits for quality, cost, efficiency and employee safety. It is human nature to take the best of what the automotive industry currently has to offer and assume that is the best that can be done. But we believe in first principles thinking. In the end, this is all about having factories that are producing the world’s highest quality cars as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible, and with as close to zero injuries as we can possibly get. Our automation strategy is key to this and we are as committed to it as ever

We are already seeing many benefits from heavily increasing automation as part of the Model 3 production process. Through the vast majority of Model 3 production, including in body welding, general assembly, inverter and drive unit production, our automation effort has been very successful. Based on every measurable metric, Model 3 is already the highest quality vehicle we have ever produced, and this is unquestionably due in large part to automation. Additionally, we’ve been able to create significant safety benefits in the factory. For example, many steps in the assembly process, including “marriage” of the battery pack and drive unit with the body, and installation of the instrument panel, seats, and wheels, are ergonomically challenging for our employees, but by automating these processes, we have been able to solve this and significantly improve safety for our team.

That said, a step change in manufacturing doesn’t come without its challenges, particularly early in the process, and we made a mistake by adding too much automation too quickly. In those select areas where we have had challenges ramping fully automated processes, such as portions of the battery module line, part of the material flow system, and two steps of general assembly, we have temporarily dialed back automation and introduced certain semi-automated or manual processes while we work to eventually have full automation take back over. This flexibility has enabled us to continue to ramp Model 3 to new levels.

Automation is only half the story. Higher levels of automation have been enabled by a dramatic simplification of product design. Our Model 3 general assembly line consists of fewer than 50 steps, which is about 70% less than conventional assembly lines. All Model 3 vehicles use only one standard body frame, down from more than 80 for Model S, a wiring harness that has 50% less mass than average vehicles, and a fraction of the number of controllers, connectors and CPUs. All these elements are rooted in design and critical not only to our ability to reach higher levels of output in a smaller amount of factory space but also to achieve lower levels of cost.”

As previously reported, Tesla delivered 8,180 Model 3 vehicles during the last quarter and exited the period with a production rate of 2,000 units per week.

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