Will Excessive Automation Be The Death Of The Tesla Model 3?

MAY 6 2018 BY EVANNEX 15


Tesla’s robots seem to have evolved from super-powered X-Men, here to save the world, into pitchfork-wielding devils tormenting the lost souls condemned to Production Hell. As Elon Musk admits that “excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” there are plenty of auto industry veterans ready to say “I told you so.”

*This article comes to us courtesy of EVANNEX (which also makes aftermarket Tesla accessories). Authored by Charles Morris. The opinions expressed in these articles are not necessarily our own at InsideEVs.

Above: Inside Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California (Flickr: Maurizio Pesce)

Timothy B. Lee writes in Ars Technica that it’s not easy to improve on the manufacturing methods of conventional automakers. While automation plays an important role on the assembly line, it’s not the answer to every production problem. As Tesla struggles to find the most efficient mix of human and machine, it may be repeating some of the industry’s past errors.

Jeffrey Liker, author of The Toyota Way, recently told the story of how Toyota got burned in the late 1970s by investing too much in automation too quickly. Other automakers have had similar experiences.

“A lot of the mistakes we’re hearing about [at Tesla] are mistakes that were made in the rest of the industry in the 1980s and the 1990s,” Navigant Research Analyst Sam Abuelsamid told Lee. He recalls the experience of GM, which lost billions in a binge of automation in the 1980s.

Above: A look at the massive robots inside Tesla’s factory (Image: Tesla)

In the 1980s, GM CEO Roger Smith had a vision of a “lights out” car factory where robots would go about their business unmolested by pesky humans. However, things didn’t work out well, as Paul Ingrassia and Joseph White relate in their 1994 book Comeback:

“As Hamtramck’s assembly line tried to gain speed, the computer-guided dolly wandered off course. The spray-painting robots began spraying each other instead of the cars, causing GM to truck the cars across town to a fifty-seven-year-old Cadillac plant for repainting. When a massive computer-controlled ‘robogate’ welding machine smashed a car body, or a welding machine stopped dead, the entire Hamtramck line would stop. Workers could do nothing but stand around and wait while managers called in the robot contractor’s technicians.”

GM spent billions on robots, but it never saw a return on that investment. “Instead of easing robots onto the line a few at a time, providing for inevitable debugging problems with redundant equipment, GM bet the entire Hamtramck production system on the proposition that leading-edge automation would work instantaneously,” wrote Ingrassia and White.

Above: Musk has expressed concerns that Tesla has relied too heavily on automation on the Tesla Model 3 production line (Youtube: Wochit Tech)

Mr. Lee notes that, although today’s robots are more sophisticated, the same basic principle applies. “Automation works best when it’s added incrementally to a production process that’s already working smoothly. Musk seems to have made the same mistake Smith did: bringing in way too many robots, way too quickly, leaving little time for testing and refining the process.”

Automotive consultant Sandy Munro also touched on Tesla’s automation aggravation in a lengthy discussion of his company’s teardown of a Model 3. He believes Tesla has hurt itself by ignoring conventional industry wisdom about manufacturing processes, but notes that there’s no shortage of experts out there who could help the company get back on track. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for Tesla to seek outside help – it brought in the engineering consulting firm Ricardo in 2007 when it was having trouble with the Roadster transmission, and in 2009 it partnered with Daimler, which helped with the development of Model S.


Written by: Charles Morris; Source: Ars Technica

*Editor’s Note: EVANNEX, which also sells aftermarket gear for Teslas, has kindly allowed us to share some of its content with our readers, free of charge. Our thanks go out to EVANNEX. Check out the site here.

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15 Comments on "Will Excessive Automation Be The Death Of The Tesla Model 3?"

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It wont be the death of the Model 3.
But the death of any hope to make money with it.

@gagaga said: “But the death of any hope to make money with it [Model 3].

Wrong… the opposite is true.

Tesla will successfully highly automate manufacturing of Model 3 lowering manufacturing unit cost thus making the car more affordable to consumers while maintaining a reasonable unit profit margin.

Other traditional car makers will be forced to follow to be competitive against Tesla.

Yeah, serial anti-Tesla troll gagame who occasionally pops in only on Tesla threads and only to spread his FUD is at it again.

Meanwhile, all the clowns who have repeatedly said that Evanex is only a Tesla propaganda organ were just disproved by this article which is critical of Tesla’s approach here.

When M3 is solid, the main line will be 100% automated.
The side lines will be a mixture of ppl, full automation, and a mix.
And yes, there will be multiple side lines.

What Musk meant by excessive automation was that parts of the system was automated incorrectly. He tore out a conveyor system, but then has a mixture of ppl and automated shuffling of parts.

And this will all make money shortly.
More importantly, they will learn a great deal more for how to do a better job of MY automation.

Could we please use “TMY” as the abbreviation for “Tesla Model Y”?

“MY” is an abbreviation already in use in automotive industry articles, meaning “Model Year”.


And I thought windbourne’s body was about to be automated…

It would be incorrect (in my opinion) to interpret Musk’s recent comments about robotic automation to mean that Tesla will be using less robotics/automation going forward.

What Musk is saying is that he is personally taking ownership of Tesla’s having underestimated the difficulty level and time needed to execute the next level of machine automation for those more difficult tasks traditionally done by human labor. Advances in machine automation is full-on at Tesla… no roll-back including Model 3… and the Model Y factory line will be more automated than the Model 3 line.

It may be that Tesla will simply find other ways to automate parts of the line which currently haven’t been successfully automated. Perhaps it’s not so much that there was too much automation, and more that there wasn’t enough testing to work out the problems with a new assembly process.

But I think it’s safe to say that Elon’s vision of cars moving down the line at 5x or 10x the speed of previous production, and robotic arms moving large parts or assemblies at eye-blurring speed, ain’t gonna happen. Some assembly processes really do need a human touch. Therefore, there’s no way to make the entire line work at speeds much faster than a human can move, as Elon envisioned.

Not with today’s robotic tech, anyway. I suppose that some day it will be possible to automate everything. Thankfully for blue-collar jobs which pay decent wage, that day is still some years or decades away!

Automation is how they can produce 10+ cars per hour.

Tesla has a huge advantage they will seize as they ramp up automation in their factories that I have seen NO analysts mention yet. Legacy auto makers were stuck with a defined workforce and steady or falling demand for their products. This resulted in either a very long ramp of small gains over a very long time, or only very slight gains in exchange for huge investments over a very short period of time, which is by definition an economic failure. Because Tesla has strong and rising demand, and they don’t eliminate jobs when automating. They don’t face the problem where eliminating the workforce doesn’t reduce costs much due to layoff pay being set at a high percentage of working pay. They don’t have the problem of figuring out what to do with twice as many cars when they double their efficiency. All they need to do is make sure their rate of investment in automation doesn’t exceed the rate they can find capital to make those investments. Their rate of improvement for investments in automation is much higher than anyone else’s, partially because of a low baseline, but once the industry average is reached, they can keep improving far… Read more »

Good article from Ars Technica! I thought this subject had already been exhausted, but this puts the problem into a historical perspective which other articles have lacked.

I’m amazed that Evannex would run this, as it’s actually critical of Tesla! 😯 All of their Tesla-related articles seem to be soft-sell Tesla advertising.

Tesla has always planned on their automation being an ongoing process. Here is a story dating all the way back to 2016 explaining this:

“Musk said with Model 3 production, the factory will be at “alien dreadnought 0.5” in terms of advancements made to the production line. “And then it will take us another year or so, I don’t know, summer 2018, to actually get to alien dreadnought version 1,” Musk said.”


They got out a bit too far ahead, and had to temporarily scale back automation while they hit their original “alien dreadnought 0.5” targets, before moving forward with more automation, just as always planned.

The first few landings of a Falcon 9 booster were spectacular failures. Don’t expect Elon Musk to be deterred by a few problems. (Others would maybe subistitute that last bit for ‘learn from his mistakes’) But most mistakes are only obvious in hindsight. That’s why this won’t be his last one. I hope. The day he stops making mistakes is the day he stops pushing the boundaries.

Maybe they could convert some unused robots for Elon’s brick making business

Robotics have come a long way since the 80’s. Elon will just have to turn his AI loose on the learning process.