Voice of the Valley: Tesla and the Future of Manufacturing

Phil Carpenter

In Silicon Valley, Teslas are omnipresent. I see them in my neighborhood, at Trader Joe’s, and on the freeway. I may not be a “car guy,” but I find them to be sleek, impressive machines. And I was therefore excited to visit Tesla’s manufacturing plant in Fremont recently to see how these cars are made.

Tesla.jpgGiant red robots dominate the manufacturing floor. The plant uses hundreds of them. They twist and turn with bird-like agility, hoisting parts into the air, welding, and shifting inventory. Around them, humans move in synchrony. Watching the production of these cars is like observing a ballet that features both humans and machines. It is an intricate, intimate dance.

However, it is also a dance that will soon end. Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, views the current manufacturing line as one that will be quickly outmoded. And, in the future, robots will dance alone.

Musk says, “you can’t have people in the production line, otherwise you drop to people speed. So, there will be no people in the production process itself. People will maintain the machines, upgrade them, and deal with anomalies.”

For Tesla to be successful, and competitive, it must manufacture in volume. For such high-volume manufacturing automated, robot-driven production will be essential to propel new gains in efficiency. And there will be many sectors in which robots will rule. From cars to consumer electronics, and from chemicals to plastics, robots are transforming the way we produce countless essential products.

So, what does this mean for the robots’ former dance partners? Will there be a future for humans in manufacturing? The short answer is “yes” – but not for as many as in times past.

Some things will continue to be produced via “bespoke” manufacturing. Fine wines, hand-sewn shoes, high-end textiles… all are examples of categories in which buyers value a human touch. As robotics and automation become prevalent in other types of manufacturing (the number of industrial robots deployed worldwide will increase to around 2.6 million units by 2019), consumers may actually hold these bespoke products in even higher esteem as they will be increasingly distinctive.

But in high-volume production facilities, plants will soon become what Musk has called “alien dreadnought” factories – factories so different than their predecessors that they barely seem to have been created by humans. In these “post human” plants, in which Musk projects that production lines will operate at more than twenty times their current speed, people will have no place. Not only will these robots be lighting fast, but they will also be “smart” – vested with a degree of artificial intelligence that enables them to solve certain problems on their own.

For some, this will seem like an unnerving vision of the future. But we’ve been here before. We’re no longer manufacturing VCRs, discmen, or rotary dial phones. The factories that produced floppy disks and rolodexes have gone silent. And the people who worked in these environments moved on. Yes, there will be disruption. But such is the history of innovation. Don’t fear the rise of the robot. Instead, embrace it and look with excitement toward the opportunities its arrival creates for us all.

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