Producing the Tesla Model 3

Everybody knows that Elon Musk has a “problem” – how to ramp up production sufficiently to fill the nearly 400,000 orders for Tesla’s new Model 3 in a timely manner. The production rate increases required are comparable to Henry Ford’s “problem” –ramping up Ford Model T production a century ago.

One post from May 2016 compared Musk’s “problem” with Ford’s “problem”. A subsequent post elaborated on plans for Model 3 production. They are both reprised below, to provide some prospective when the hype builds up around the start of actual Model 3 production, expected in the third quarter of this year (2017).


Henry and Elon (From 1 May 2016)

I’m writing this post just one month after Tesla Motors’ Model 3 electric automobile was introduced and made available for advance orders. As you may have heard, in the first week following that introduction, Tesla received more than 325,000 orders, with $1,000 deposits – reportedly a record for any product, ever! Now, a full month from launch, the order book reportedly totals around 400,000.

The question now is “can Tesla produce enough cars to fill those orders before the folks in the queue get tired of waiting and demand their fully refundable deposit back?” Sounds like a fair question, especially considering: (a) that Tesla produced only about 52,000 cars in all of 2015, (b) that Tesla will want to continue to produce their existing Model S and Model X cars, presumably in increasing volumes, and (c) that lots of additional Model 3 orders will keep rolling in. As a practical guess, let’s rephrase the question this way: “can Tesla deliver a cumulative 400,000 Model 3 automobiles by the middle of 2019 without retarding growth of their other product offerings?”

Henry Ford’s Model T

Let’s start to answer the Model 3 production question by considering Henry’s Model T of a century ago. Ford introduced the Model T as a practical and affordable automobile for everyman in late 1908 and started deliveries in the 1909 – 1910 model year. Here are the production figures:

Ford Model T Production Figures

1910 Ford Model TStarting at zero, it took Ford about four and a half years to produce the first 400,000 Model T Fords. Unlike Tesla, Ford did not start with 400,000 orders in hand. Henry Ford had no idea, from the start, how many he would be able to sell: “everyman” had not even dreamed of owning an automobile in 1908. So, Ford didn’t know how much manufacturing capacity he would need, nor did he know how raw materials would be sourced in sufficient and timely quantities.

For Ford, it was necessary to vertically integrate from iron ore deposits to metals castings all the way through finished vehicles in order to assure adequate supplies of all of the components necessary to keep production going. Tesla has integrated vertically to build a “gigafactory” sufficient to mass produce batteries in the quantities that Model 3 production will require. The “gigafactory” is already in operation, although far from full capacity.

Compared to Ford and his Model T, Tesla has a century of manufacturing technology to draw on, along with the infrastructure that supports an industry that can produce about 15 million vehicles annually. With 400,000 orders in hand (and the $400,000,000 from the deposits), Musk and Tesla are certainly in a much better position to find financing for the facilities and capital goods necessary to produce the Model 3 than Ford was in 1908.

Building and operating a 21st century automobile factory that can produce 400,000 automobiles by the middle of 2019 is a big job. The manufacturing technology is impressive, but it’s not rocket science. By the way, Elon Musk is a rocket scientist – he is the Chief Technical Officer of SpaceX, maker of 21st century rockets.

Will the Tesla Model 3 deliver fast enough? Bet on it!


7 May 2016 – Additional Comments

On 4 May 2016, Elon Musk and Tesla’s management team held a conference call for business analysts and the financial community. Model 3 production planning was a primary area of discussion. Here are a few points that build on last week’s post:

Production Rate: Musk announced that Tesla intends to reach the 500,000 cars per year rate in 2018, instead of 2020 as previously indicated. I take that to mean total production of all three models, not Model 3 alone. The blue line on the graph labeled Model T Production indicates that Ford significantly exceeded the half million cars per year production rate in the 1914 – 1915 model year. The production rate in 1910 – 1911 was 53,192. So, within four years Ford increased production by more than ten times. Now, Tesla says they will do almost exactly the same thing – from about 52,000 in 2015 to about 500,000 in 2018 – in three years rather than four.

Operating Leverage: In a discussion on costs, Elon Musk mentioned that “our operating leverage means fixed cost relative to variable cost is going to improve dramatically”. How much is “dramatically”? The red line on the graph labeled “Model T Production” indicates the per vehicle selling price. For the 1910 – 1911 model year, Ford charged customers $780 for a Model T. The price was reduced to $550 for the 1914 – 1915 model year. That 29.5% price reduction was made possible through Ford’s increase in operating leverage.

Ford was selling the Model T into an entirely new market. Each time he reduced the price, he created an entirely new customer segment. Ford used price to keep his production rates increasing and the improvement in operating leverage funded the price reductions – with some left over for Ford and his Company.

 “Hell-bent on becoming the best manufacturer on earth”: Musk pointed out:

“Thus far, I think we’ve done a good job on design and technology of our products. The Model S and Model X are generally regarded by critical judges as technologically the most advanced cars in the world. We’ve done well in that respect. The key thing we need to achieve in the future is to also become the leader in manufacturing.”

Excellence in manufacturing operations results in high product quality levels and high throughput rates – hence strong operating leverage. It worked for Ford a century ago. It is working for Tesla today.


Everybody in manufacturing should read (or re-read) Henry Ford’s autobiography. The parallels between what Ford said and did with what Musk is saying and doing are truly remarkable. Of course, it goes without saying that a century does make a difference and a Tesla Model 3 isn’t a Ford Model T. Learn from Ford anyhow.

By the way, last week Elon Musk’s SpaceX recovered (landed) a rocket on a barge at sea, at night. SpaceX designed and manufactured that rocket. SpaceX will reuse the rocket, reduce the price for future satellite launches, and increase their throughput and their operating leverage. Musk and his crowd do know how to do things well.

Chuck & Joan in ParisThoughtful comments are always welcome.

…  Chuck Harrington

(Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome.

Model T Photo: Creative Commons via Wikipedia

 

Idiocy Squared?

15 January 2017

Yesterday (14 January 2017), I watched SpaceX launch a cluster of ten communications satellites into precise orbits, while returning the launch vehicle to an autonomous barge in the Pacific Ocean. I’ve been following rocket launches since I saw the first Vanguard rocket self destruct on its launch pad in December, 1957, to the chagrin of the entire nation.[1] Yep, I’m a technology buff. Technology fascinates, amazes and delights me. Maybe that’s why I became an engineer.  — C.H.


Elon Musk and the Vision Thing

Elon Musk is an interesting man. He envisions the future. Then he acts on that vision in a systematic (and courageous) manner. Actually, he goes beyond “systematic” – he insists on thinking from first principles,[2] rather than on starting with the present art. At the same time, he remains focused on his vision, to the consternation of many.

This post focuses on two of Musk’s businesses – SpaceX and Tesla — and examines the visions they embody, with examples of initiatives in place to realize those visions.

SpaceX’s Vision:

SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

That’s right – Musk’s vision for SpaceX is nothing less than colonizing Mars.[3] The purpose of SpaceX’s commercial launch program is to fund the development of the technology necessary to do so. That technology is complex and its development will be enormously expensive. Keep in mind that SpaceX is already doing things that only governments have done before (and some that nobody has done before). Also remember that the Apollo program that sent astronauts to visit moon – but not live on the moon – was, at its peak, consuming about 4% of the entire federal budget!

Here is some of the technology currently under development:

>> Advanced rockets and spacecraft: The Falcon rocket and the Dragon spacecraft are both original designs, developed from first principles as steps on the way to Mars.[4]

>> Reusable launch vehicles: Yesterday’s SpaceX launch vehicle was safely landed, joining launch vehicles from about a half dozen earlier SpaceX launches. The objective is to reuse them. Reusable launch vehicles are the key to sharply reduced costs. Imagine the cost of an airline ticket if the airplane could only be used once. Look for a SpaceX launch using a previously used rocket within this year.

>> The Falcon Heavy: With three times the lift capacity of the current Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy is scheduled to test launch this year. Trips to Mars will require massive lifts into orbit.

>> The Raptor engine: SpaceX has test – fired a new rocket engine that will burn liquid methane instead of kerosene. Liquid methane will provide considerably more thrust per unit of mass than does kerosene. Methane is also available on Mars, so methane refueling on Mars could facilitate return trips!


Tesla’s Vision:[5]

The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good. That’s what “sustainable” means. It’s not some silly, hippy thing — it matters for everyone.

So, Tesla is about accelerating the advent of sustainable energy. Wind energy, solar energy and hydroelectric energy are all potentially Sustainable, but none of these are directly applicable to vehicles. However, if the vehicle is powered by electricity, all of them are applicable. So, Tesla makes electric vehicles. Tesla also recognizes that it cannot, of itself, make enough electric vehicles to make electric vehicles the world’s standard. There are many constraints to doing that.

Here are a few of them:

>> Vehicle performance: Drivers expect electric vehicles to perform at least as well as petroleum fueled vehicles. Hence Tesla’s emphasis on acceleration, comfort, handling, safety and related matters.

>> Style: Drivers like cool, classy, functional cars. Tesla vehicles turn heads.

>> Range: Drivers expect electric cars not to strand them. That requires that vehicles have a range between fueling that compares their current vehicles, and that refueling be available almost anyplace. That’s why Tesla cars have 250 – 300 mile range between recharging, and why Tesla is so intent on building recharging facilities worldwide. Tesla is not waiting for somebody else to do it for them.

>> Batteries: Over 15 million new cars were sold in the U.S. in 2016, and several times that many worldwide. For electric vehicles to become a substantial portion of those numbers, a ready, reliable source for suitable batteries is necessary. That’s why Tesla is building a giga-factory – the largest factory in the world – to produce the batteries. Again, Tesla isn’t waiting for somebody else to do it for them.

>> Update 1/19/2017 : Tesla just announced that it will increase its investment in the giga-factory by $350 million in order to manufacture electric motors and drive trains for Tesla automobiles. Yet again, it appears that Tesla sees a need to produces hundreds of thousands of 200 – 400 horsepower motors that meet their requirements, rather than wait for somebody else to do it for them.

>> Price: In order to sell enough vehicles to even begin to make a difference, Tesla has to produce vehicles that sell at mass market price points. Hence the coming Tesla Model 3.

>> Production Technology: In order to meet drivers’ expectations at a mass market price while generating a reasonable profit, Tesla is re-inventing vehicle production technology from first principles. It will be interesting to see just how the Model 3 is produced.

>> Marketing and sales: Tesla regards the existing authorized dealer model of vehicle sales as inefficient. Instead, Tesla wants to use Amazon – style sales methods. Not surprisingly, existing dealerships are resisting fiercely.

>> Self-driving vehicles: In 2015, there were 35,092 people killed in traffic accidents in the U.S. alone.[6] Tesla believes that self driving technology can reduce that figure by at least a factor of ten. Accordingly, all Tesla vehicles produced right now come equipped with the necessary equipment to do this. As self driving technology becomes more commonplace (and traffic regulations change), insurance costs most drop sharply, not to mention the reduction in human suffering. This technology addresses the human side of triple bottom line Sustainability, as electric power addresses the environmental side.

>> Critical mass of vehicles: To make a real difference, electric vehicles have to become a significant fraction of the world’s fleet of vehicles. Tesla cannot even hope to produce anything close to the number of vehicles needed to do that. That’s why Tesla made its large body of patents available without charge to all manufacturers that want to produce electric vehicles.


Elon Musk says that starting an automobile company in the U.S. is “idiotic”, and that starting an electric vehicle company is “idiocy squared”. Chuck says that if Tesla is idiocy squared, then SpaceX is exponentially so. But I like the way Elon Musk thinks. He reminds me of Henry Ford. The world needs people like them — people whose vision and actions transcend accepted bounds. Musk may be idiotic, but I do own some Tesla stock.

Chuck - Red RocksThoughtful comments and experience reports are invited and appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome.


[1] For those who were not around in 1957, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were heavily engaged in the Cold War. The U.S.S.R. shocked the U.S. by launching the Sputnik 1 satellite in October 1957. The clear implication was that the U.S.S.R. was ahead of the U.S. in rocket technology, hence had an important military advantage. Catching up with the Soviets was so important that the Vanguard launch attempt was televised live.

[2] Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains thinking from first principles and why it is so uncommon in his bestselling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farriar, Straus and Giroux, New York (2011)

[3] For more and SpaceX and for a presentation on the Mars project, see SpaceX’s website at https://www.spacex.com

[4] In contrast, the Atlas V launch vehicle, which is used to compete with SpaceX for commercial launch business, is the latest in a series of Atlas rockets that began in 1957. The original Atlas was, in turn, a descendent of the German V-2 rocket from World War Two.

[5] For more on Tesla and on Elon Musk’s vision for Tesla, see: https://www.tesla.com/blog/master-plan-part-deux

[6] Traffic fatalities figure from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year

A Tale of Two Innovators

Henry Ford and Elon Musk

I’ve been reading My Life & Work, an autobiography of Henry Ford. The book was originally published in 1922, during the heyday of the famous Model T. The Model T, its manufacturing technology and the business philosophy behind it revolutionized personal transportation a century ago. The Model T’s story suggests parallels to Elon Musk’s unfolding Tesla revolution today.

Henry Ford and the Model T

1910 Ford Model TThe opening decades of the 20th century were alive with revolutionary ideas. Some of them, like Einstein’s theories, were truly fundamental. Many more were technical advances, across a number of fields – not just mechanics. Sometimes technical advances converge. That’s what happened with Ford’s Model T.

Converging Technologies:

Electrification: Electricity came to industry in the early 1900’s. Electricity provided the power and the practicality necessary for the development of large – scale manufacturing facilities, for automation and for moving assembly lines.

Texas Oil Boom: The gusher of crude oil at Spindletop Hill in 1901 began the Texas Oil Boom, making cheap petroleum a product needed a volume application.

Internal Combustion Engines: Gottlieb Daimler is credited with the first commercial automobile in 1892. Daimler’s vehicle used a four cycle internal combustion engine that was powerful enough, portable enough, light enough and rugged enough for an automobile. Henry Ford built and used a similar engine to power his first “gasoline buggy” in 1893. The gasoline engines that power most of today’s cars at direct descendants of those Daimler and Ford used.

Vanadium Steels: Vanadium steel alloys were first used around 1900. Vanadium alloys are much stronger than conventional steels, so metal parts could be designed to be smaller, lighter and stronger than the conventional steel parts they replaced. Vanadium steel parts were used extensively in the Model T’s frame, before other automobile manufacturers were even aware of its existence.

Scientific Management: Fredric Taylor made a science of the role of people in manufacturing. Taylor divided production into discrete tasks, measured the time and human effort necessary to perform each task and, practically speaking, invented the concept of productivity. Henry Ford applied Taylor’s ideas in his high volume, low cost manufacturing methods.

Business Philosophy

Ford’s idea was to provide reliable personal transportation for everybody. To use Ford’s own words:

“I will build a motor car for the multitudes. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man earning a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

Ford’s idea with the Model T was to persistently reduce the price in order to open new strata of demand. Then he continually reduced costs as throughput increased. Cost reductions were through productivity and elimination of waste. In 1914, Ford voluntarily established a minimum wage of $5.00 a day – almost twice the then–prevailing wage rate in manufacturing – heavy Detroit.

Elon Musk and Tesla Motors

Today, a century later, Elon Musk is attempting to upcycle the automobile by replacing the internal combustion engine with electric motors. Electric automobiles are not a new idea – Studebaker, for example, produced electric vehicles from 1902 to 1912, before being overwhelmed by Model T’s. However, like Ford, Musk lives in a time of new and converging ideas. These converging ideas may well change everything.

Converging Technologies

Lithium – ion Batteries: The exploration of space and the advent of mobile electronic devices like cell phones has fostered an avalanche of innovations in battery technology. Lithium – ion batteries are the current favorite due to high storage capacity, long battery life and low weight to storage capacity ratio. Tesla has partnered with Panasonic to build a gigafactory to mass produce lithium – ion batteries for Tesla automobiles and other uses. The gigafactory is expected to start production in 2016, with the ability to produce enough batteries for 500,000 automobiles at full initial design capacity.

Variable Speed AC Motor Drives: Until recently, heavy, expensive DC motors were necessary for variable speed, constant torque applications like automobiles. Today, stable, reliable variable frequency drives allow the use cheap. Light, efficient AC motors in those applications.

Environmental Concerns: Internal combustion engines burn fuels under conditions of high pressure and temperature. Environmentally undesirable by-products, including oxides of carbon, sulfur and of nitrogen, are present in the engine exhaust. Electric vehicles have no exhaust emissions.

Robotics: Advances in computer – driven robotic technology are making significant product quality and productivity contributions to manufacturing. Tesla makes increasingly extensive use such technology.

Business Philosophy

Musk and Tesla propose to build no compromises, fully electric vehicles. “No compromises” means that customers enjoy the advantages of clean, quiet electric propulsion without compromising safety, performance, reliability, cost to operate, internal space or any other characteristic that matters.

To accomplish this, Tesla is engaged in a three step program of commercial development and introduction. The first step was a high price, low volume sports car that provided proof of concept. Tesla’s produced and sold 2,250 Roadsters in 31 countries between 2008 and 2012 at more than $100,000 each.

Tesla Model SThe second step is a premium priced, medium volume sedan and SUV that brings sales volume up sufficiently to confront the realities of everyday driving in many countries. The $70,000+ Model S sedan and the slightly higher priced Model X SUV are expected to sell a combined 55,000 units in 2015.

The third step is a smaller, more popularly priced model that will challenge the heart of the automobile market in developed countries. Tesla’s Model 3 is expected to begin production in 2016 or 2017, priced starting around $35,000. Combined volumes for Models S, X and 3 are forecast at 500,000 units per year by 2020.

If 500,000 vehicles sounds like a very big number, consider that, in 2015, about 15 million automobiles will be sold in the U.S. alone. Also consider that over 15 million Model Ts were produced and sold over its 19 year production run a century ago. Consider as well that the population of the U.S. today is three times what it was in 1920. It could well be that Tesla may be that one gigafactory isn’t enough.


Chuck - Austrian AlpsThoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington

(Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

P.S: Contact me when your organization is serious about pursuing Sustainability … CH

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published weekly.

Photo: 1910 Ford Model T – Creative Commons via Wikipedia

Quotation: My Life & Work, Henry Ford’s autobiography, originally published in 1922