In a recent interview, Elon Musk gave us a look inside his new Tesla Assembly Factory in Freemont, California. He made some very good points on the high level of automation, which seems to explain most of his current manufacturing problems:
1. Don’t introduce too much new technology all at once
I have found that to be very true for some of the products we have developed as well. Moving from a version 1, to version 2 to version 3 in a deliberate fashion, means that you can keep the amount of new stuff at a manageable level, so we can confidently continue to assure full reliability.
2. Making the machines which make the machine is the hard part
Many people don’t realize how much work is needed to design, build and optimize the electronics assembly process. Even if we do not use any robots, we always need to build testing jigs and write testing software. We take great pains to design the assembly SOP in close cooperation with the assembly plant. During the pilot production runs, we do a lot of process optimization, to assure the assembly line reliably delivers reliable products.
3. There are limits to what Assembly Factory Automation can achieve
Elon Musk will need more workers (including himself!) to deal with all the issues the robotization inevitably seems to bring up.
This echoes the story of a factory designer who realized they had just spent $8 million to lose 2 jobs… . You must really hate people if you’re willing to pay that much! He also notes Murphy’s law is ever present in a manufacturing plant. Murphy’s law simply states “What can go wrong, will go wrong”. Humans are still much better at dealing with all the issues which come up.
The answer to his plight may well be “Cobots“: smaller robots collaborating closely with humans.
From 1 unit that works, to 10,000 which don’t fail
This is always a lot more work than people realize, even the most brilliant mind on the planet underestimated it. Assembly factory automation does help to get more predictable outcomes, if the work to be done is very predictable, i.e. very high quantities.
For the kind of electronic assembly work we normally do, producing a series of say 5,000 products, it still makes little sense to go through a whole factory automation program, we need a lot of flexibility. Luckily the salaries for skilled assembly workers in China and Taiwan are still a lot more affordable than in California.