Elon Musk is not using one of those tarps that cover coils of aluminum delivered to the Tesla stamping facility as his blanket. Nor is he resting his head on a pillow made from absorbent mats used to deal with factory spills. At least it is unlikely.
He told Oprah’s best friend, Gayle King, that he is sleeping in the Tesla factory.
Factories, even the most advanced, tend to be noisy places. So now he has stopped production. Which undoubtedly makes sleep easier.
Musk is snuggling up at the factory because he has taken direct control over production of the Model 3 sedan, which has missed a series of goals.
Musk was once all about increasing throughput in the Fremont factory through the implementation of industrial robots. After all, robots can swing their arms faster than Nolan Ryan could at his best, and they can do it all day. Robots don’t get hurt (another recent knock on Tesla claims that it is under-reporting workplace injuries). And robots don’t complain about having their boss overlooking their every little move.
Musk had previously wondered about the seemingly glacial velocity of all car plants, even the best of them. This is probably predicated on his visiting one of the factories in the Valley where computer boards are being populated with fingernail-sized chips. This happens at speeds that seem as though real life has been accelerated.
For those of us who have learned physics from the “Big Bang Theory,” we know that there are astrophysics, which deal with things that are really large, and quantum physics, which deal with the mind-bendingly small. Newtonian physics works just fine for those of us in the middle — things like inertia and acceleration.
Robots are like physics. That is, they can deal with the large — like lifting car bodies and moving them from one assembly line to another — and they can deal with the really small — like putting those processors on a board.
But it is the stuff in the middle at which they aren’t necessarily as good as humans, at least in situations where there isn’t strict organization (think of a carton of eggs versus a bowl of eggs) or when there is the need to make adjustments based on judgment (think of how you sometimes have to wiggle a screw when you’re trying to get it seated in a threaded hole).
Humans are really good at doing the final assembly of vehicles, as in installing the various things that are in the interior of a car. Robots are really good at spot welding, painting and material handling.
According to Bernstein analysts, Tesla has not only automated stamping, painting and welding like most other manufacturers, but it also tried to automate final assembly. This is where it seems to be facing problems.
It is not impossible to make it so that robots can do final assembly. Some robot manufacturers offer machines that resemble snakes with grippers on their ends that can maneuver inside of semi-confined spaces such a car-in-progress with almost frightening dexterity. But the challenge is programming — teaching the robots to perform the tasks as required. Tasks that, again, are not orderly.
And while there are countless programmers in the greater Fremont area that can make things happen on screens both large and small that are nothing short of phenomenal, there is the fact of physics that comes into play in a factory: Newtonian physics, such as actions and reactions. That’s hard.
Only now is Elon Musk coming to a realization: “Humans are underrated.”
The people in the Valley may not think highly of the people in Detroit who have spent decades working with automation in their factories.
They ought to think again.
Sweet dreams, Elon.
Material from Reuters was used in this report.