Since the moment Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk disclosed plans for a $5 billion battery “gigafactory” in the Nevada desert, skeptics said the idea was nuts.
Even Yoshi Yamada, a top executive with Japan’s Panasonic , which supplies the lithium-ion cells used in Tesla’s Model S and Model X, had his doubts.
“I thought it was a crazy idea,” said Yamada, whose company nonetheless agreed to foot $1.6 billion of the cost. “But I was crazy. I was wrong,” he said. What changed his mind were the nearly 400,000 reservations Tesla has received for its next vehicle, the $35,000 Model 3 sedan.
But then things got even crazier: Tesla decided to whack two years off its production timeline, pulling forward to 2018 its target of building 500,000 cars a year, which naturally sent the gigafactory project into overdrive as well.
Now, Tesla and Panasonic say they’ll not only meet the battery capacity targets two years early, they have figured out how to triple the original output to support 1.5 million electric vehicles a year.
“This is not a typical factory. It’s an ongoing engineering improvement project,” said J.B. Straubel, Tesla’s chief technical officer, after the media’s first look at the project going up in an industrial park outside Reno. Even as the first phases of construction were underway, product and manufacturing engineers working together found ways to shorten supply chains, pack more machinery into smaller areas and speed assembly processes that would increase volumes and drive down the costs of battery cell production, he said.
Musk said the gigafactory is on track to produce its first battery cells within about nine months and he is “highly confident” that by 2020 Tesla will be able to produce cells for as little as $100 per kwh (from an analyst-estimated $150-$200 per kwh today). Lowering the cost of batteries is critical to Tesla’s mission to shift society toward sustainable energy through affordable EVs and renewable energy storage.
For now, though, understanding the gigafactory requires a lot of imagination. It’s very real — there’s already a 1.9 million-square-foot building on the 3,200-acre site. Only a small portion of it is currently operational, however: last October, workers began assembling Tesla energy storage products using Panasonic cells from Japan. By building it in phases, manufacturing can begin inside the finished portions while construction continues elsewhere.
A great deal of machinery is already on site, however, much of it cloaked in plastic, both for security and for protection from the abundant construction dust. Massive Panasonic-built anode- and cathode-coating machines, for example, are installed and ready to begin producing test cells within a matter of weeks, the companies said.
Rows and rows of empty storage racks, three stories high, packed together as densely as trees in the forest, stand waiting to be filled with battery cells, then carried away on vertical conveyors to upper floors, where they will be assembled into battery packs.
It’s a huge, impressive investment. And yet Tesla says the current structure is only 14 percent of what is planned. Crews are laying the footings for another 3.4 million square feet on both the north and south ends of the factory. A year from now, those dusty plots are expected to be fully operational, producing battery cells. To speed up the work, Tesla construction managers are pitting contractors against one another, in hopes of motivating them to stretch their limits.
Eventually, the roof of the 5.8 million square foot building will be covered with solar panels, and rail lines will bring raw materials into one end of the plant, and carry finished battery packs out the other to Tesla’s vehicle assembly plant three hours away in Silicon Valley.
Source : Forbes