Tesla’s push to make more Model 3 electric cars expanded outdoors this week: On June 16th, Musk announced that Tesla had built an “entire new general assembly line” in just three weeks with “minimal resources.” He posted a photo of a gleaming red Model 3, the company’s first dual-motor, all-wheel drive performance model, inside what appeared to be a very large tent. And like all things Tesla, the tent instantly became the focus of intense interest.
Internet sleuths posted and dissected satellite imagery, spy shots, and aerial footage of the new structure — even though a reporter for Ars Technica noted the tent was “easily visible from the nearby Warm Springs BART station platform.” At least two Twitter users camped outside the tent this week, shooting still images and videos and posting them to the platform.
More fodder came from RS Metrics, which analyzes satellite and aerial imagery and sells the data to the likes of institutional investors and hedge funds. After their images of the tents started to make the rounds, the company promoted its Tesla data sets — which primarily focus on car counts based on images of Tesla’s parking lots, and range in the hundreds of dollars — on Twitter as well.
“We saw this big structure being built, and saw some cars peeking out of it, and started to wonder, could that be the new assembly line that they’re talking about?” says Alex Diamond, the VP of product at RS Metrics. “It was an exciting moment to see something like that, but that’s kind of what our business is all day long, we try and find basically information from the satellite data that helps our clients.”
Some automotive and manufacturing experts were incredulous. “I can’t say for sure, but I would guess it’s currently the only vehicle assembly for a high volume car going on under a tent right now,” Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, told The Verge. His colleague, Rebecca Lindland, an executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book and Cox Automotive, added, “Apparently Tesla is furthering its prep for Mars occupation (think Matt Damon in The Martian).”
Additional capacity has been a long time coming for Tesla. Last year, Elon Musk said his factory in Fremont, California, was “bursting at the seams” making Model S and X vehicles. Now that the company is in a mad sprint to produce 5,000 Model 3 sedans a week, including the more expensive, dual-motor version of the car, Tesla was in need of more manufacturing space.
Tesla’s ability to hit the benchmark of 5,000 Model 3s a week by the end of June is crucial, as the company has said it will lose money on each one that’s made until they’re being produced at that rate. That means the company is a long way off from pulling in the 25 percent margin it expects to eventually make on the Model 3.
Tesla also needs to prove that it can make a mass-market vehicle if it is to achieve Musk’s vision of widespread EV adoption. So far, though, Model 3 production has been a bumpy ride. The cars started rolling off the company’s production lines last summer, but production bottlenecks at the Fremont factory and the battery-focused Gigafactory in Nevada meant Musk had to lower his targets for the end of 2017.
Despite an attempt to heavily automate production of the car, Musk eventually decided to build the cars with a more balanced mix of robots and humans. The CEO also admitted that, like with the Model X, some of the early production problems came from putting “too much new technology” in the Model 3. Meanwhile problems at the Gigafactory persisted as the production rate slowly ramped, prompting Tesla to reportedly fly six planes’ worth of new equipment from Germany to Nevada, in an effort to quickly finish building up capacity.
Musk told shareholders at the beginning of June that the company was making 500 Model 3s per day, or an average of around 3,500 per week. But a more recent report by Business Insider casts doubt on the prospect of Tesla reaching its 5,000 per week target. And with less than two weeks to go before the deadline, the struggling upstart electric car company is racing to avoid a major upset.
At least one analyst thinks the tent is a savvy — if totally unprecedented — move to increase production. “When you strip it down, cars in a tent, I haven’t heard of that before,” said Jeremy Acevedo, manager of industry analysis at Edmunds. “We have seen automakers become nimble with their production, but not going as far as moving their production to a semi-permanent structure that I’m aware of.”
There is even disagreement about whether or not to call the structure “a tent.” Fred Lambert, who edits the pro-Tesla site Electrek, noted that it’s “a Sprung structure, which is a much stronger type of building that can actually be used permanently.” Dana Hull, who covers Tesla for Bloomberg, sardonically referred to it as “a high performance tensioned membrane structure.” Musk himself seems okay with calling it a “giant tent.” He also bragged about the view, and mulled over inviting reporters to come tour it. (A spokesperson for Tesla declined to comment for this story.)
Tesla had applied for a temporary construction permit for the tent, but Musk is now apparently considering making it permanent. For now, the city of Fremont has provisionally approved the tent project for six months, but no formal building inspections have been scheduled. That approval can be extended for an additional six months.
General assembly in a tent presents a number of challenges. Most assembly equipment is also not designed for outdoor use. In general, auto manufacturers prefer to operate in a controlled environment with consistent humidity and temperature. This is especially true for applying sealants and adhesives. At traditional factories, long before equipment goes in, workers spend weeks pouring concrete foundations for all of the equipment so that there is relatively little movement — something that can be a real issue when you’re moving multi-thousand pound objects down the line.
“Part of having these big, sturdy production structures where these vehicles are built is that the walls and the ceiling become important aspects in tooling up these areas,” Acevedo said. Being able to reach the top of the vehicle, as well as move around the sides and underneath, as it travels down the assembly line is a crucial aspect in production and quality control. “You kind of wonder exactly what they’ve done to replicate that in a tent setting,” he added.