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

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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]