Musk is discovering that large-scale car manufacturing is really hard, and it’s not easy to improve on the methods of conventional automakers. And while automation obviously plays an important role in car manufacturing, it’s not the magic bullet Musk imagined a couple of years ago. Far from leapfrogging the techniques of conventional automakers, Tesla is now struggling just to match the efficiency of its more established rivals.
In reporting this story, we talked to two different experts who drew the same parallel to GM’s automation efforts in the 1980s. At the time, GM was being led by chairman and CEO Roger Smith and faced rising competition from Toyota and other foreign carmakers. Smith had a vision for a “lights out” car factory where robots would do the bulk of the work, allowing GM to produce cars more efficiently than anyone else.
In their 1994 book Comeback, Paul Ingrassia and Joseph White (Author) described the results of Smith’s automation project at GM’s plant in Hamtramck, Michigan:
As Hamtramck’s assembly line tried to gain speed, the computer-guided dolly wandered off course. The spray-painting robots began spraying each other instead of the cars, causing GM to truck the cars across town to a fifty-seven-year-old Cadillac plant for repainting. When a massive computer-controlled ‘robogate’ welding machine smashed a car body, or a welding machine stopped dead, the entire Hamtramck line would stop. Workers could do nothing but stand around and wait while managers called in the robot contractor’s technicians.