What The Gigafactory Could Mean For American Manufacturing

What The Gigafactory Could Mean For American Manufacturing

August 11, 2016 | U.S. Manufacturing

The future of American manufacturing has found itself on a revolutionary new path thanks to Tesla's groundbreaking Gigafactory. The gargantuan battery factory, most known for its immense size, takes the time-tested assembly line and flips it on its face, resulting in a remarkable, innovative new manufacturing process.

Inside The Gigafactory

Tesla's massive undertaking finds itself a leader in a number of arenas. Currently clocking in around 5.5 million square feet, the building is the largest in the world by footprint. Once it's complete, that number will be closer to 13 million, spread over 3,000 acres of Nevada desert. That number could even end up as high as 24.5 million, as Tesla continues to buy up land surrounding the factory.

The modular design is another key attribute of the behemoth. Currently split into four blocks, this choice means that each module can begin production individually, allowing manufacturing to ramp up as blocks are completed even as construction is ongoing.

Designed For Maximum Efficiency

Perhaps the most exciting piece of the Gigafactory is its complete revamp of how a factory is engineered. At its core, mass production has always been about churning out as much product as quickly as possible. In Ford's time, this meant the assembly line: moving the product rather than the people. For Elon Musk, this simply wasn't efficient enough: "You need to look at a factory like it's a product— like it's a giant machine that builds the machine. It deserves more innovation and more engineering skill than actually the product itself. And that's what we've done."

Their method for crafting the Gigafactory's process moved the focus from the batteries to the factory itself, preferring to see it as a tool to be designed for maximum efficacy. This meant that, rather than build and make it fit, they essentially reverse engineered the factory by looking at how to best assemble a battery. This makes for an economical and efficacious flow wherein the needs of the product has the most clout in how the process is ran. The result: a production output aimed at churning out more batteries in one year than the entire world made in 2013, "faster than bullets from a machine gun."

Environmentally Friendly

Equally as awe-inspiring is Tesla's devotion to keeping their colossal undertaking carbon neutral. At the grand opening of the Gigafactory, Musk's very first remark was simple: "Tesla's mission is to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy."

Obviously this statement pertains to the sheer quantity of lithium ion batteries produced helping to enable the switch to electric cars, but it also has to do with the factory itself. The Gigafactory was built around the idea of completing the entire production process in one place, cutting out the need for costly and environmentally harmful transportation of incomplete goods to different manufacturing plants for each stage of the process. The roof of the factory and the surrounding hills are covered in solar panels, limiting the need for outside energy; in fact, the factory is net-zero, meaning it will put as much energy back into the grid as it takes out. In addition, the factory will operate at zero emissions— Tesla didn't even entertain the idea of building a natural gas pipeline to the plant, to avoid the allure of utilizing it over clean solar. Previously, it was thought that a net-zero, carbon neutral, zero emissions factory was a fever dream.

A Modern American Marvel

All of this adds up to a modern American marvel. For a country that makes one out of every five things produced worldwide, manufacturing was bafflingly stagnant, a bit of a "why reinvent the wheel" situation. The Gigafactory aims to change this view, challenging other companies to look at the production process in a completely different light, affording it the same attention as the products it aims to create.

The original timeline put the Gigafactory up and running in 2020, but Musk has brought on scores of new workers to drastically shorten this. New estimates say that the 1,000 workers building seven days a week across two shifts should have at least the first block of the gargantuan plant turning out cells by 2017 at the latest, just three years after breaking ground, with production steaming ahead at full speed by 2020. The astonishing number of cells produced should facilitate a drop in price— Tesla is aiming for a 30 percent decrease— making their cars more accessible.

Tesla's previous accomplishments have already secured it a reputation as an astounding American innovator; accomplishing the lofty goals set for the Gigafactory will only further cement its place in the annals of history. Hopefully its successes will inspire other American manufacturers to follow in their footsteps.