Inside the Tesla Gigafactory

tesla battery gigafactoryIf you’ve been anywhere near a tech or manufacturing blog this week, it’s probably been hard to miss news of Elon Musk’s Tesla Gigafactory. It’s a recipe for marketing success when a company not only builds a massive factory, billed as the largest of its kind in the world, outside Reno, Nevada, but keeps the entire process completely secret and off-limits from the press. (By the way, Tesla is hiring for quite a few manufacturing positions…)

Anyway, here’s a little background if you haven’t yet heard of the Gigafactory. Right now, Tesla is on a mission to transition the world from gasoline-dependent transportation to sustainable transportation by means of electric vehicles. Here’s the catch with electric vehicles, though: They require batteries. And Musk isn’t particularly a fan of existing batteries, according to a 2015 Fast Company article. “‘The issue with existing batteries is that they suck,’ Musk says. ‘They’re expensive. They’re unreliable. They’re stinky. Ugly. Bad in every way.’” So, if Tesla plans to produce 500,000 cars per year, the company alone would require our entire worldwide production of lithium ion batteries, which is not a particularly feasible plan.

Hence, the Gigafactory: a massive undertaking in Sparks, Nevada, to create a factory that, at full capacity, will produce more lithium ion batteries annually than were produced worldwide in 2013. As you might imagine, this is a pretty pricey project, and will cost $5 billion dollars before the deal is done. Musk says that the Gigafactory is being built at a scale that simply makes the most sense for production: “So it’s either build a whole bunch of little factories or one big factory. And a whole bunch of little factories sounds like quite a bother. Why not just have one big one and maximize your economies of scale?”

The piece also notes that Tesla employees say that in addition to making batteries cheaply, Musk has given them another directive: Make the factory beautiful. “. . . the Gigafactory must be attractive because Musk sees it as a product—something that has been carefully planned, where everything fits together with a certain harmony. He wants it to be beautiful, in part, because he plans to build more than one.”

So, the factory is revolutionary in more ways than one. More than ever, the drive to make these spaces aesthetically pleasing has become a requirement of new factories—and, larger manufacturing spaces for production are also trending for many corporations. The Gigafactory has a substantial number of Nevada incentives to build, so just this week, Tesla invited local media to tour the factory for the very first time.

The journalists were the first people outside the company ever to see the space. While only certain parts could be photographed, the glimpse of what might be the world’s most revolutionary factory was still welcomed by the public. Right now, about 14% of the factory is finished, and workers are already at work inside the building. “Originally, we were going to build the whole building all at once, but that didn’t make a lot of sense,” a spokesman told the Reno Gazette Journal. “We needed to begin producing faster. We are stepping into it in modular fashion so that as we build we can learn from what we’ve built.”

Another notable feature is the lack of power lines or natural gas anywhere near the factory. The roof will be covered with solar panels and run entirely on natural energy, the first plant of this scale in the world to do so.

The factory is certainly an advance in manufacturing spaces, but it’s also an opportunity to witness a factory unfold step-by-step—a pretty extraordinary experience.

Photo: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus via Green Car Reports