scorecardElon Musk's big battery plans include another shot at his 'alien dreadnought' factory dream
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Elon Musk's big battery plans include another shot at his 'alien dreadnought' factory dream

Matthew DeBord   

Elon Musk's big battery plans include another shot at his 'alien dreadnought' factory dream
LifeThelife4 min read
  • Tesla and CEO Elon Musk spent a lot of time talking about a new battery design at the company's much-anticipated "Battery Day" on Tuesday.
  • Musk also returned to a longtime preoccupation with reinventing manufacturing, what he calls the "machine the builds the machine."
  • In 2016, Musk came up with the catchy term "alien dreadnought" to explain what the factory of the future would look like.
  • Despite Tesla's bumpy history with automating its plants, Musk hasn't given up on the idea — far from it, he's actually doubling down on the concept.

Tesla's annual shareholders' meeting and highly-touted "Battery Day" on Tuesday ended up presenting investors with a deluge of extremely technical information to contend with.

But amid the flood, there CEO Elon Musk revived an idea that he's been pushing for years now, and that in the end could be a much bigger deal than the advancements that Tesla's staged the event to promote.

That's right: the infamous Tesla "alien dreadnought" — Musk's presumed-dead factory of the future — is back. And so is Musk's near-maniacal devotion to reinventing manufacturing, with Tesla at the forefront.

A bigger battery and a better factory

Tesla obsessives often concentrate on the company's stock-market story. But beyond the financial fireworks, the automaker is a technology and engineering enterprise — the first electric car company to firmly establish itself in the modern era, and the first successful new American auto brand since Chrysler. Technology and engineering were the stars of the Tuesday show. (So much so that Musk, usually a solo artist, shared the stage with Drew Baglino, who oversees powertrain and energy engineering, the heart of every Tesla vehicle and storage system.)

For all the immense detail on a new lithium-ion battery cell design, the upshot is that Tesla thinks it has successfully developed a larger cell than what it currently uses — a new cylindrical unit that could provide more power at a lower cost.

Simply put, if Tesla hopes to achieve Musk's stated goal of building 20 million vehicles a year, it will require a staggering number of new cells. So the company is aggressively attacking the problem, and the results look initially promising.

That was Tuesday's plot. But a more intriguing — and familiar, to longtime Tesla followers — subplot was Musk's ongoing preoccupation with manufacturing. He calls it "the machine that builds the machine," and he routinely argues that it — not cars, trucks, or batteries — will be Tesla's most significant contribution to the future.

That's because replacing today's gas-powered cars with battery-powered alternatives requires building about 300 electrics — just for the US. Worldwide, the number's closer to a billion.

A ludicrous problem to solve

Musk has concluded, he said on Tuesday, that Tesla needs to make 20 million cars a year at some point, twice as many as industry-leading Renault-Nissan made in 2019. Tesla delivered about 360,000 vehicles last year and is aiming for 500,000 in 2020. With two factories in the US (one in California and one in Nevada), plus a new plant in China and two factories planned for Germany and Texas, Tesla could have roughly 2 to 3 million in total annual capacity for vehicle production by 2023.

Industry standards say Tesla would require 40 factories to hit the 20 million mark. Musk says the way we build vehicles is much too slow.

Musk has tried to change that before: In 2016, he envisioned a Model 3 and Model Y factory so automated and different from what exists today, he called it the "alien dreadnought."

It was a major failure. Tesla's attempt to automate its first Model 3 assembly line fouled up production to such an extent, Musk's team had to retreat to a circa-1910, simplified assembly line under a tent in the parking lot of its Fremont factory. (The move was ridiculed at the time, but in truth was the best solution to Tesla's immediate difficulty. And, to the company's credit, it designed its new China factory to make cars much more efficiently.)

Musk isn't giving up on the "machine that builds the machine"

Musk, though, hasn't given up on the idea. A few years ago, he complained about the dominant "Toyota Production System," developed by the Japanese giant in the 1970s and 1980s and now widely emulated as part of a network of global supply chains that has revolutionized carmaking. It's usually referred to as "just in time" or "lean" manufacturing, and Musk doesn't think it can get the job done anymore.

That's why Tesla has been quietly refining the machine-that-builds-the-machine concept. Along with a slew of battery details, Musk said that Tesla is now casting the front and rear sections of its new Model Y out of a proprietary aluminum alloy. This means that the basic architecture of future Tesla vehicles — assuming that the new battery cell design works out — would require just three large pieces: the cast-aluminum-alloy front and back bits, and the structural battery in between.

So if Tesla can figure out how to automate battery production, almost all of its vehicles could be assembled robotically. You'd still need humans for the detail work, but you'd need far fewer of them. Fewer humans and more robots would mean a factory that can run at a much higher rate of speed.

And Tesla sees extreme-velocity battery-making as a problem that has already been solved, just not for lithium-ion cells. Musk and his team suggested bottling lines and paper manufacturing as models. These intricate contraptions hum along at what Musk likened to freeway speeds, without pausing. That's how we end up with billions of bottles of soda every year.

His optimism and analogies aside, Musk has been chastened by Tesla's inability to automate manufacturing as rapidly as it once expected to. But that hasn't diminished his ambition. And that's why on Tuesday, Tesla spent as much time talking about making batteries and cars as it did the batteries and cars themselves.