By on June 5, 2018

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is a man with a knack for envisioning new and elaborate ways of accomplishing simple tasks, but his factory in Fremont, California — home to three revolutionary electric car models — could use a dose of the Old World. By that, we mean lessons learned by legacy automakers over many decades of mass production.

That’s the takeaway from a scathing exposé published in The Daily Beast, penned by former TTAC managing editor Edward Niedermeyer. Coming on the heels of a CNBC report on fires at the automaker’s paint shop, The Daily Beast‘s piece brings together testimony from current and former employees to paint a picture of what can happen when Silicon Valley startup culture meets the realities of mass auto production.

Bring your safety goggles.

We’ve detailed Tesla’s failure to meet production targets ad nauseum, which isn’t hard to do when it keeps happening, as well as last year’s Reveal piece that documented safety allegations at the Fremont plant. Now, employees claim the hurdles faced during the Model 3’s “production hell” were a lot more serious than the automaker let on.

It goes back to the very first one built, a former worker claims. Allegedly, the black Model 3 Musk drove out of the factory to an awaiting online audience last July was not a full production model as the CEO claimed, but a one-off assembled at the back of the factory and “hand-walked” through the paint shop.

“That black Model 3, that first production one that Elon said was the first production one? That was a crock of shit,” the employee said. Another former employee called those supposedly early production cars “props.”

Tesla Model 3 Duo - Image: Tesla

By ditching the established practice of fielding pre-production models ahead of mass production for retail sale, Musk opened himself up to quality issues and future production slowdowns, said Dave Sullivan, analyst at automotive marketing research firm AutoPacific. Two sources told The Daily Beast that 90 percent of Teslas coming off the line require some type of rework or repair, which explains the recent hirings of quality inspectors and other end-of-line employees at Fremont. Compared to a conventional automaker, the plant employs twice as many people for each car built.

“If there’s a very high defect rate today, you can only assume that the people they are hiring are gearing up to make repairs on the vehicles coming off the line,” Sullivan said.

Tesla fired back prior to publication, claiming the worker-per-vehicle comparison isn’t fair, as “we do more of the manufacturing ourselves.”

Two former employees also claim the urge to speed up production has resulted in lax maintenance, leading to safety issues, delays, and unnecessary expense. In once incident, a source said paint buildup on the paint shop conveyor caused the machine drop a Model S body into the dip tank below. The 8-hour recovery operation, which ground the paint line to a halt, saw workers drain 80,000 gallons from the tank. In another incident, a conveyor broke, dropping and ruining a car’s battery pack.

Another source claims sparks ignited the paint sprayer on a machine where paint had accumulated, including on the grounding strap. This apparently led to an exciting day at the paint shop.

“Literally it’s a torch fucking flying around, the paint spraying, the paint’s on fire, scorching the car,” the source said.

The former employees blame deferred or hasty maintenance for both snafus — a charge Tesla vigorously denies. “We are not aware of a single instance where lack of maintenance caused any issue like what’s described above,” a Tesla spokesperson said, calling the ex-workers’ testimony “false.”

That could very well be, but a former maintenance engineer at Fremont paints a troubling picture (pardon the pun). While Tesla claims it performs regularly scheduled maintenance at its paint shop, Seth Love said the pressure to keep the line moving was unyieling.

“So it was constant battles, arguing back and forth with management, saying ‘give me the time to do the actual repairs,'” he stated.

This report (and others) comes as Tesla enters the final stretch in its effort to reach an end-of June production rate of 5,000 Model 3s a week. The automaker says it needs this much throughput before it adds new Model 3 variants to the mix, including dual-motor and performance variants, the latter of which retails for $78,000. It’s only with the extra cash collected from high-end Model 3s that reservation holders stand to gain a $35,000 base model. Production of low-end models won’t occur until this fall, at the earliest.

Kudos to Niedermeyer for becoming the most untrustworthy journalist at Musk’s future Pravda ratings site!

[Images: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Tesla]

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41 Comments on “Fires, a Paint Plunge, and Rework Aplenty: Report on the Goings-on at Tesla’s Assembly Plant Won’t Have Elon Musk Smiling...”


  • avatar
    Sub-600

    The paint shop sounds like the old days when chicks would use hairspray while they were smoking, lol. OSHA should have a field day inspecting that circus.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      Reminds me of when my Dad was involved in a minor incident with his Bonneville while I was in college. Young lady backed into his front bumper at church and his white bumper wouldn’t completely buff out.

      The insurance company wanted 3 estimates so he decided to get one of his estimates from his cousin Bruce who ran an independent body shop. We dropped by to see him on a Sunday when he was there alone. Bruce comes out of the back in his paint coveralls with a Budweiser in one hand and a cigarette in the other. High as an effin’ kite.

      He didn’t get the job.

      • 0 avatar
        Sub-600

        That’s funny, I used to hang around garages and a body shop as a teenager and I can’t recall anyone who didn’t smoke like a chimney. Guys would be under the hood working and they always had those beanbag ashtrays somewhere in the engine compartment, lol, it wouldn’t surprise me if customers drove off with an ashtray under their hood now and again. The body shop guys would always be drinking Molson Brador, a Canadian malt liquor that had a higher alcohol content than American beer. They did quality work even though they usually started drinking right after lunch, lol.

        • 0 avatar
          Dilrod

          I have a clear memory circa 1980 of the late Bill Winters, manager of the Kettle River Co-op gas station, filling up our pickup with a lit Pall Mall unfiltered in his mouth.

          Men like him are missed. May his memory be a blessing. :-)

      • 0 avatar
        civicjohn

        When one of my kids ran over a tractor trailer retread that had landed in the middle of the interstate, first, I was happy that he didn’t plow into another car, and no harm to him.

        But it did mess up the plastic bumper, etc., so I called my insurance agent (who has kids the same age) because I didn’t want to turn it in. He hooked me up with a police officer who set up his own body shop so that he would have something after he retired from the force. You might guess that he gets his share of body work from the police, what a great way to play that card.

        We traded pictures via text, and what was quoted as $1200-1500 by body shops was $400 cash with him. I’ve been back 2 more times between the 2 kids. Best hookup I ever got.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      Or when we used to make a homemade flamethrower with hairspray and a match, or spray paint and a match. Good for killing bugs, or burning model cars.

      • 0 avatar
        Sub-600

        Or for melting those little plastic green soldiers. Geez, isn’t that how Jeffrey Dahmer started out?

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          I’m fairly certain the Old Man was aware of those things, I just think he didn’t like it shoved up in his face.

          • 0 avatar
            Sub-600

            I hear ya, personally I’ve never taken my vehicles to small body shops. I suppose it doesn’t really matter on today’s cars as much anyway, they replace entire sections now, not as much bondo and dent pulling anymore. The better places have computerized painting too.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    Kinda explains why I buy American pickups and mostly Japanese motorcycles.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Wow, even a GM plant in the 1970s couldn’t be this bad. It’s like the Malaise Era, on steroids.

  • avatar
    s_a_p

    I don’t know how I feel about this. To me it seems there is a motive behind all of the bad press. Im no Tesla apologist or fan boy but what is the end game of an article like this? Is it to “prove” Tesla needs a new CEO? Is it to prove its a bad investment? Is it to make sure they go out of business?

    Conversely, maybe there is such an iron grip on the company that insiders feel the only way to affect change is via the press. I don’t know. It seems that Elon is definitely passionate about the company and wants to see it succeed, maybe to a fault. It does seem to be a very polarizing company, but I dont understand why someone would wish failure on them.

    • 0 avatar
      hreardon

      I think people who understand the complexities of the manufacturing process see through Musk’s salesmanship and are trying to bring a dose of reality to the conversation.

      • 0 avatar
        dukeisduke

        Tesla just needs to bring in someone that has actual auto manufacturing experience, like Magna or Valmet.

        • 0 avatar
          s_a_p

          Dont disagree here at all

        • 0 avatar
          mcs

          @dukeisduke: Tesla just needs to bring in someone that has actual auto manufacturing experience, like Magna

          https://www.magna.com/media/press-releases-news/2009/01/12/magna-news—chrysler-group-and-magna-announce-collaboration-in-unique-toledo-south-manufacturing-project

          http://www.wtol.com/story/16451430/crews-on-scene-of-fire-in-paint-shop-of-toledo-north-jeep

    • 0 avatar
      civicjohn

      I don’t know that it is a conspiracy to take down Tesla. EM brings it on by trying to air his laundry via tweets and disparaging investors, the majority of the press (electrek.co not included), and various government agencies.

      The missed shipment dates speak for themselves – either shut up and ship, or stop making promises that are consistently wrong. Take a listen to the last shareholders call when EM gave the middle finger to the investment community and gave a YouTube fanboy 20+ minutes of questions. That is just whack, and no wonder why some of the institutional investors would like to get some real answers to questions.

      There is the issue of his being CEO and Chairman, which is a valid point when you look at the structure of the Board. Do those roles need to be split? Probably, but I doubt it will happen. Since he’s the largest shareholder and given the non-GAAP targets in his compensation package, there should be some adults in the room, and I don’t know why his brother needs to be on the board. He already bailed out his cousins with the Solar City deal.

      Anyway, the meeting today should make for some good viewing, we’ll see if there are any updates with respect to reservations and manufacturing capabilities. If you need to burn some time, you can view the meeting here (it starts at 5:30 ET):

      https://www.tesla.com/shareholdermeeting

      • 0 avatar
        s_a_p

        I wonder what shared flaw donald trump and elon musk have that makes it seem like twitter is a great platform to publish your stream of consciousness…

    • 0 avatar
      ckb

      “what is the end game of an article like this? …. Is it to make sure they go out of business?”

      Goodness no! Ragging on every production hiccup (and yes there are many) has been the author’s bread and butter since the Tesla deathwatch series over a decade ago. A story a week about how Detroit could never sell a small car just won’t cut it. I see a win-win (win). Musk gets attention, the peanut gallery gets red meat and the transportation industry marches on towards a better mode of personal transportation!

    • 0 avatar
      jpolicke

      The purpose of this article is to tell The Truth About a Car company. I have lost all respect for Tesla over the way it dangled $35,000 cars to the public and raked in millions of interest free loans and waited until the first deliveries to yank the rug out. “You have to wait until the long range cars are delivered.” “You have to wait until the dual motor cars are delivered.” “You have to wait until the high performance cars are delivered.” What excuse comes next- the amphibious Model 3’s?

  • avatar
    vvk

    In other news:

    Swindon Honda Factory blaze tackled by 40 firefighters, 4 December 2016:
    “Crews were called at about 17:00 GMT on Saturday to a blaze in a diesel generator which spread to a paint shop.”

    Fire, explosions rip through instrument panel plant in Michigan, May 2, 2018:
    “A massive fire broke out early Wednesday at an automotive interiors plant in Michigan, reports say.”

    Honda plant continues production after fire which left workers needing treatment, 23 January 2016:
    “A spokesman for the firm said: “A small equipment fire occurred this morning at the Honda factory in Swindon within the die cast facility, while routine weekend maintenance work was taking place.”

    Toyota halts production of one of its plants in Japan by fire, 22 March, 2017:
    “Japanese car maker Toyota Motor has stopped production at one of its plants in central Japan due to a fire, a company spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday. The fire originated Monday night at the Toyota Auto Body plant in the town of Inabe”

    Toyota firefighter injured in early Monday fire, February 13, 2012:
    “A firefighter at the Toyota Motor Corp.’s South Side plant was injured early Monday after a fire started on a heater above the plant’s paint shop, officials said.”

    And on, and on, and on….

    • 0 avatar
      civicjohn

      vvk,

      Trot out all of the examples you can google up. The global auto manufacturers produced 78.6 million cars in 2017, to put your examples in perspective.

      EM brings on the press microscope. And calling the assisted driving option “AutoPilot”? And continuing to sell “FSD”? You’ve got to be kidding. They recently announced that they would have to change out many of the motherboards in vehicles to keep up with AutoPilot 2.0.

      You can’t make this stuff up. Combine that with the dearth of launches on the books for SpaceX in 2019, he’s starting to waver. Care to explain flamethrower sales and extensive maps of all of the tunnels that are supposed to be created by The Boring Company without having jumped any of the regulatory hurdles?

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        @civicjohn: “Combine that with the dearth of launches on the books for SpaceX in 2019, he’s starting to waver”

        The estimates for SpaceX in 2019 seem to run from 40 to 45 with some thinking it may be more. How is that a “dearth”?

        • 0 avatar
          civicjohn

          mcs,

          marketwatch.com – 40% drop from 2018. Not real sure what search tool you use, it was linked on finance.yahoo.com if you look up TSLA.

          https://www.marketwatch.com/story/spacex-postpones-plans-to-send-first-space-tourists-around-the-moon-2018-06-03?link=MW_latest_news

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      @vvk

      http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2017/06/flint_gm_truck_and_bus_plant_e.html

      http://www.wfmj.com/story/16166781/fire-in-the-paint-shop-at-the-gm-lordstown-complex?clienttype=mobile

      http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article18668265.html

      http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2017/07/05/gm-assembly-plant-explosion/

  • avatar
    stingray65

    I’m sure the new VP of manufacturing hired away from Snapchat will turn this around in no time. Maybe they can send the same code that fixed the Model 3 brakes to the paint shop robots to greatly reduce the painting time.

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    When you’re manufacturing anything, there has to be a hierarchy. Unless your facility is *completely* automated, safety is your first concern. Secondly, quality assurance. Then, and only then, your zealous production guys can try to hit their targets. When you skip the first two, you get shutdowns and rework.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      “Unless your facility is *completely* automated, safety is your first concern.”
      — You forget: This assembly line was intended to be •completely• automated. It just hasn’t worked out as well as intended.

  • avatar
    thegamper

    This I think is a product of the news cycle Silicon Valley is accustomed to. The constant need to stay in the public eye, constant upgrades to hold attention a one year cycle of new and upgraded products. A defective phone can be thrown out and replaced, not so much a car.

    This all may work well for consumer electronics which can be ready for retail relatively quickly, manufactured by third parties, with outsourced components, etc., apparently not so much for large, high cost, complex machines subject to a library full of regulations.

    Surprisingly, as the Model S and Model X are already on sale, one would think production run ups would only go smoother with every subsequent product.

    I guess that’s what happens when timelines are based on egos, and your end customer is a shareholder, not necessarily the owner of your product. Seems like a lot of that going on these days. We are all just dollar signs gents.

  • avatar
    zamoti

    I work in technology and this part seemed mighty familiar:
    The auto industry typically builds a run of “pre-production” vehicles to validate, or test, parts and production processes as well as the vehicles themselves before beginning to make “production” vehicles for delivery to customers.

    “This helps established automakers avoid the prolonged ramp and ‘production hell’ that Tesla has experienced with Model 3,” said Dave Sullivan of automotive-research firm Autopacific and a former auto manufacturing supervisor.

    Tesla effectively skipped that step and instead went straight to “production” and evolved its production system over time.

    The whole notion of bypassing any testing or validation and going right into production stinks of SV tech hubris. This is why we have phones that require constant bugfixes and patches, this is why anyone who uses most any type of new tech is an involuntary beta tester. I can’t stand the notion that testing and validation is skipped just to meet arbitrary project deadlines. I’ve been in the trenches on projects like this and I’ve never understood why those in charge believe this to be a useful approach. It always produces trash that needs constant revisions and commits a ton of operational overhead to maintain. I’m sure there is a lot of Wall St pressure, but since when has been keeping JO analysis happy been a sustainable practice?

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    I won’t argue with the gist of the article; that Tesla is having problems or that those problems may be partially due to Musk’s rush to get things running at full speed despite those problems. I will disagree with one statement, however:
    “Tesla CEO Elon Musk is a man with a knack for envisioning new and elaborate ways of accomplishing simple tasks.”

    Looking at Tesla’s other two cars, which are built on very unconventional assembly lines, it is clear that Musk is attempting to simplify the assembly process, not complicate it. Because his methods are different, they are not necessarily more elaborate; they just haven’t been performed that way before by any automaker, as far as I know. And seeing as the methods are different, they are not “tried and true” and therefore there will be hiccups as their processes are stabilized. Remember, the majority of the other automakers themselves made a major change to how their assembly lines operated, starting with the Japanese back around the late ’70s. They were, at the time, probably the premier efficiency experts when it came to auto assembly and the American automakers followed suit through the 80s. The legacy automakers had one advantage though: their other lines could keep running while the new lines were installed, tested and brought up to speed in a more controlled manner. The Saturn plant in Tennessee was an example of GM’s first effort to copy the Japanese assembly methods, of which many were adoped for their mainstream brands over time.

    If Tesla can make this line work as intended, at the speeds Musk believes is possible when complete, then the Fremont plant may ultimately produce more cars per year under Tesla than it ever did under GM/Toyota. BUT… that remains to be seen.

    • 0 avatar
      Sub-600

      Musk will have trouble reaching Geo Prizm production levels at Fremont within the next 12 months. Rework is a non-value added step for investors as well as consumers.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        We don’t know that as a fact, sub. While I agree that re-work is an NVA issue, they do seem to be improving with each line-rework shutdown they perform. They’ve already learned that they can literally skip some original design steps as well as learning that the machines can’t do it all alone. I do think Tesla can prove less manpower intensive than conventional assembly lines and may be able to meet their production goals, even if not on schedule.

        • 0 avatar
          conundrum

          What the heck has this series of excuses on behalf of dear Elon got to do with the very basic task of keeping paint nozzles and air filtration systems clean?

          Not one damn thing.

          You do protest too much. As usual.

          Forget the high-flying BS and appeals to our intellectual side of Musk’s emotive plans for the future. We have a case of a person waxing on about his cordon bleu cooking, when he cannot even boil an egg or not burn the toast. His inexperience and micromanagement syndrome shine through.

          In this case, four fires in two years in the same paint plant not random ones the delusional followers dredged up above to excuse Tesla. As usual.

          Get real, you lot.

  • avatar
    Jerome10

    Yes, other automakers have had fires. But here I am looking at ONE factory, averaging a nice paint shop fire once a year. While Honda or Toyota or GM operate how many plants worldwide and might have A fire (maybe) one time.

    And we’re supposed to give Tesla the benefit of the doubt when they say they’re trying to revolutionize the production process? This after they miss every other production and financial target they also promise? We are supposed to believe this when they churn out hand-assembled, shoddy, crap quality, beta cars at a fraction of the rate of a “regular” assembly plant? (meanwhile everyone talks about how the FCA RAM launch is not going well).

    I never hated Tesla for Tesla. I can applaud trying to shake things up. But when you have a company that is NOT shaking things up, can’t get the basics right for YEARS on end, misses targets left and right, has a loud-mouth egomaniac CEO that can’t keep his mouth shut when he should, goes on and on and on about how wonderful their product is and how it will save the world, and then on top of that burns how many billions in a cash furnace every quarter while idiot customers and investor fanbois seem to be more than willing to buy their garbage products (while real, quality, working, non-beta electric and hybrid cars from other real automakers sit on the lots) and donate umpteen billions more into said cash furnace, and while Wall Street puts a higher market cap on this crap-show of a company than it does on a real company that produces real products and makes real money (Ford, FCA)…. then yeah there is a real problem with this company.

    Tesla is a complete farce, and for way long enough now that it is time to take it out back and shoot it. The assets and brand could be far far far better utilized by any other 1st world automaker on the planet. Lets get on with it.

    And the B&B debates more about whether GM should kill the Buick brand….

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Sounds like a splendid place to work.

  • avatar
    civicjohn

    Shareholders have approved all 4 of the Board’s recommendations, EM said that “we build our cars with love””, and expect to be at 5k production per week at the end of the month.

    Still rambling about the “bumpy” production. Also addressing the worker injury rate. Reading his notes from the floor.

    You should tune in. Q and A coming next.

  • avatar
    tylanner

    When the product is this good the critics can only attack how you manage to do it….

  • avatar
    Dilrod

    Tesla has gotten cited by OSHA plenty of times, & something still under investigation from April: https://www.osha.gov/pls/imis/establishment.search?p_logger=1&establishment=Tesla&State=CA&officetype=all&Office=all&p_case=all&p_violations_exist=all&startmonth=06&startday=06&startyear=2013&endmonth=06&endday=06&endyear=2018

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