On Tesla’s Famed First Floor

Going down? (Picture courtesy hundalifts.com)

Excerpted from a dead-tree copy of Mired Magazine found in the bathroom at a wine-and-ambien party with Kurt Cobain and Pablo Escobar, down in the deeper levels of the Simulation. All names are fictional.

By Ayla L.N. RanbeBay Area – 7.17.17

While working at Tesla, I always enjoyed talking to people after they finished a factory tour. As much as they raved about the amazing automation, gigantic presses, and hundreds of robots, the reality was they only saw half of the actual manufacturing that was taking place in the building. Unknown to most visitors, the factory’s first floor was home to the most advanced reworking systems in the auto industry. Some of the robots moved so fast that components actually time-warped back to 1970’s-era Fremont quality levels! For realsies!

Though it was obvious why we were building the systems at the heart of our product, such as the battery and motors, many people had difficulty understanding why we manufactured high-voltage cables, displays, fuses, and other smaller systems. What they saw as the embrace of Silicon Valley DIY culture, was Tesla’s innovation of IYI culture.

Why take on the madness of not only starting a new car company but also making it more vertically integrated than any car company since the heyday of the Rouge plant in the late 1920s, when plummeting demand for the Model T, for which Rouge was built, almost bankrupted Ford?

The answer is simple: our goal was to bring the auto sector from the early 20th century into the 21st century. And we succeeded – right down to the mountains of inventory, unergonomic workstations, elevated injury rates, Taylorist scorn for line workers, histrionics against organized labur, and hostile work environment towards women and minorities.

We needed to do this on an accelerated timeline that most automotive suppliers could not fathom, what with their DMFEAs, PFMEAs, PPAPs, APQP / DFSS and so forth. So in many cases this meant building components ourselves. I’m proudest of the Model X seats, whose production we brought in-house because our supplier wasn’t competent enough to manufacture them to our exacting specifications. We shipped fully-functional seats from Day One (like the AP2 hardware) and customer feedback was universally positive (like the AP2 hardware).

Viral Engineering

When you build your own products, it enables you to drive faster cycles of learning and improvement. Everyone knows Mr. Musk’s vision of an Alien Dreadnaught for the Model 3, but not many people know his vision of Viral Engineering for the Model S and X.

The idea of bundling improvements and building them into the next platform every three to four years (the typical development cycle for the car industry) made absolutely no sense to us at Tesla. Rolling many improvements into a package often means that some items get delayed waiting on some other item that’s essential to their production, which results in a lower cumulative improvement rate.

This is about the pace at which mammals reproduce. From first principles it’s terribly inefficient, and explains the biological superiority of single-celled organisms, which vastly outweigh the planet’s multi-cellular life. Viruses can survive years of exposure in deep space; they don’t require a terraformed Mars and might be life’s only hope when our AI turns against us!

Our approach at Tesla was to adopt improvements as soon as they were ready. This meant we were implementing up to 50 changes per week, or about one per hour. That’s about how long it takes a virus to reproduce. Hence “viral engineering”.

Now, some critics would say things like, “introducing changes without rigorous engineering and testing increases the likelihood of quality issues. There’s a reason eukaryote cells have RNA polymerase II holoenzymes.”

And we would tell them, “please, take 5 minutes and do the bloody math before you write an article that misleads the public. If each change has only a one-in-ten-thousand risk of causing errors, like viral RNA, then our risk profile only gets 0.5 percent worse per week. We can fix those things with an Over The Air update, or have customers drive to their nearest Tesla service center for a level of service automakers would never dream of giving.”

And, of course, we proved them wrong. Many people know that the Tesla Model S broke the NHTSA roof-crushing machine. But few people know the Model X broke TrueDelta’s reliability scale, with an incredible 628% score. The Toyota Corolla barely managed 60%!

Why am I so passionate about this? Early in my career, I was a participant in the offshoring of US manufacturing. Because of this trend, American industry lost some of the fundamental knowledge that comes from building your own products. Having restored that knowledge, that discipline, that pride, to American industry, we turned his eyes abroad. Remarking on the fallen state of German industry, and wondering how Tesla could help, Mr. Musk bought Grohmann Automation. We all need self-improvement projects, and his just happen to involve other people.

For too long now, a fear of building new hardware companies has gripped enterprises and entrepreneurs. To solve many important problems, you need to touch the physical world. Disease, energy, infrastructure, mobility, and other complex challenges require multidisciplinary solutions that include hardware as tightly-toleranced and reliable as the Teslas I personally helped build through my supervisory role. We need bold founders and non-unionized, preferably temporary and ideally gig, labor to tackle these important problems. The time has come for us to rub shoulders with non-college graduates as we hire them to build things again—and recapture the knowledge and competitive advantage it creates for our businesses and communities.