Tue, May 29, 2018 - Page 14 News List

Robots throw a spanner in the works at Tesla’s Model 3 factory
特斯拉Model 3 汽車工廠 機器人從中搗亂

A Tesla Model 3 drives past the Tesla Motors production plant in Fremont, California, US.
一輛特斯拉型號Model 3 的車輛行經加州弗里蒙特的特斯拉汽車製造廠。

Photo: AP

In recent years we’ve become accustomed to regular predictions that robots and artificial intelligence (AI) will soon replace everything from factory workers to lawyers and even doctors. Only last month, influential economic think tank Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned a revolution in automation will leave 66 million jobs worldwide at risk of being replaced by machines in the near future.

However, in a rare win for humans, electric car trailblazer Tesla Motors — which operates what is believed to be the most automated production line of any carmaker on the planet — last month admitted they had installed too many robots on the company’s Model 3 assembly line. These were blamed for slowing down production and causing severe delays. Production targets were slashed from an initial 5,000 cars per week to 2,500 and then 2,000.

During an interview last month with US television network CBS, billionaire entrepreneur and Tesla CEO Elon Musk described the manufacturing line at Tesla as “production hell” and posted the following mea culpa on Twitter: “Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.” The company was forced to pull the plug on some of its robots and employ more humans.

The problem centers around Tesla’s newest product, the Model 3, a mid-range sedan with a base price of US$35,000 that forms the backbone of the electric carmaker’s long-term strategy to bring electric car driving to the masses.

It is a marked turnaround from the euphoria of the Model 3’s unveiling back in 2016 when Tesla received over 400,000 pre-orders for the new model in just 10 days after the announcement. Back then, Musk confidently predicted the Tesla factory, a sprawling complex in California’s Silicon Valley, would be turned into an “alien dreadnought” with a small army of robotic arms churning out cars at breakneck speed.


1. robot n.

機器人 (ji1 qi4 ren2)

2. artificial intelligence phr.

人工智慧 (ren2 gong1 zhi4 hui4)

3. automated adj.

自動化的 (zi4 dong4 hua4 de5)

4. production line phr.

生產線 (sheng1 chan3 xian4)

5. bottleneck n.

瓶頸 (ping2 jing3)

6. profitable adj.

有盈利的 (you3 ying2 li4 de5)

7. cash flow positive phr.

正現金流 (zheng4 xian4 jin1 liu2)

There is currently little detail in the public domain about the precise cause of the production bottlenecks aside from the interview Musk gave to CBS, during which he said too much new technology was put into the Model 3 at once and should have been staggered. Musk also alluded to a problem of over-automization, referring to a “crazy, complex network of conveyor belts” which failed to work and had to be completely abandoned.

According to analysts at Wall Street firm Bernstein, quoted by Business Insider, “Tesla has tried to hyper-automate final assembly. We believe Tesla has been too ambitious with automation on the Model 3 line.” Bernstein adds that Japanese carmakers try to limit automation because it “is expensive and is statistically inversely correlated to quality.” According to Bernstein, Japanese automakers get the process right first, then introduce the robots: the opposite of Musk’s approach.

Does this mean predictions of robo-droids programmed with AI sending humans to the scrapheap are premature?

It is not the first time Tesla has encountered production hiccups. The company had to overcome similar bumps in the road with its Model X SUV, but production now appears to be back on track.

As for the Model 3, the latest signs are positive. Musk recently said Tesla has managed to stabilize Model 3 production at 2,000 units a week, while delivery times have shortened. Musk also recently tweeted that he expects Tesla will be profitable and cash flow positive by the third and fourth quarters of this year.

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