Following recent headlines that Tesla is behind schedule on its new Model 3, and an analyst report that suggests excessive automation was the culprit, Elon Musk has come forward and admitted that this was indeed the cause. The report sheds some light on the pitfalls of automation, but also gives some insight on how to integrate it successfully.
[Tesla] has also tried to automate final assembly (putting parts into the car). It talks of two-level final lines with robots automating parts sequencing. This is where Tesla seems to be facing problems (as well as in welding & battery pack assembly).”
Warburton, who spent his career before Wall Street at the International Motor Vehicle Program — a partly academic, partly commercial organization based at MIT — wrote that “automation in final assembly doesn’t work.”
One thing that makes it hard to solve problems in every area, according to Bernstein’s analysts, is that they’re all automated. Other car companies that have tried this — Fiat and Volkswagen — have also failed.
The lesson to take away from this should not be that automation is inherently bad, or that Musk has made a fatal blunder, its that both human labor and automated labor have their appropriate roles in manufacturing.
Bernstein adds that the world’s best carmakers, the Japanese, try to limit automation because it “is expensive and is statistically inversely correlated to quality.” Their approach is to get the process right first, then bring in the robots — the opposite of Musk’s.
At Adafruit there is a constant assessment and rebalancing of where to insert automation and where to rely on our excellent manufacturing teams. Being able to iterate designs in our factory onsite, with Limor and the manufacturing teams together, allows for tweaking and optimization of early production runs. Once a smooth manufacturing process is developed (and leads to a solid product build) then we start to lean more on the robots. This process is seemingly obvious, but it’s worth restating as the siren song of outsourcing and automation can prove to be alluring.
Tesla is doing great things to be sure, but it’s prudent to remember that if you’re trying to reinvent the car, be careful when also reinventing the wheel, otherwise you may never end up getting to drive it.