Elon, Henry, and the mastery of manufacturing

  • 26-May-2016 10:35 EDT
Musk and Ford.png

Model 3 and Model T makers: Musk and Ford  

“Do you want to make a bet on Musk’s latest pronouncement?” asked my friend the Tier 1 supplier engineer, whose company is part of Tesla’s supply chain.

“I’m betting against it,” he followed, “because they haven’t yet proved they’re capable of big volumes. When they increase product complexity and volume at the Fremont plant it stumbles in end-of-line quality. Product is delayed. They’re still teething while talking like they’re big boys.”

Not being a betting kind of guy, I acknowledged that this was sound logic.

Then I added: “My concern is not with Tesla’s ambition for such a huge production leap—from 50,000 Model S and X units built in 2015 to 500,000 units including Model 3 in 2018. They plan to double that again, to 1 million units, by 2020.

“My biggest concern is this: Elon Musk has yet to create a sufficiently robust manufacturing organization to pull it off.”

Readers of this magazine who follow industry news know the scenario. Tesla’s recent unveiling of its lower priced Model 3 brought an avalanche of customer orders. It was reminiscent of the public’s reaction to the 1964½ Ford Mustang, whose sales surpassed its maker’s projections for the year just three months after launch.

That Ford was able to meet unforeseen levels of demand for its original pony car showed why it was then, and remains today, a master of high-volume manufacturing. Such proficiency in building a complex, high quality project, while driving cost out, doesn’t just happen overnight. Pulling the tarp off the shiny new Model 3 in front of adoring fans is easy; cranking them out in volume is the tough part.

Jumping from 50,000 units to 500,000 units is a 900% increase. If Musk pulls that off, it would be a rare and historic feat. I pulled a book I wrote in 2008, Ford Model T: The Car that Put the World on Wheels, off the shelf to look at Henry Ford’s accomplishment. From 1910 to 1914, annual output at the new Highland Park plant skyrocketed from 19,050 cars to 202,667—a 968% increase in four years. And that was just the start of a colossus that was churning out over two million Model Ts annually by 1922.

If Musk can execute his Tesla plan by 2018, comparisons to Henry Ford will inevitably be made. Both men built billion-dollar empires and were global disruptors. Both were dictatorial leaders. Ford became an instant folk hero when he announced the $5 work day. Musk’s fans treat him like a rock star.

But his manufacturing vision relies on finding veteran production engineers to ramp up volume ten-fold in two years. Unfortunately for Tesla, Musk hasn’t been able to keep vice presidents in charge of manufacturing around long enough to create that robust structure. Indeed, according to my supplier friend and experts familiar with the Fremont operation, Tesla has been a “revolving door” for manufacturing experts.

But a dream-maker has arrived: Peter Hochholdinger, the former produktion meister at Audi, is Tesla’s new Vice President of Vehicle Production. He is charged with rapidly implementing a strategy to make the Fremont plant into a Californian Ingolstadt. Bets are already being placed on how long Hochholdinger will last there.

Behind Henry Ford was a loyal team of determined, hands-on plant men—“Cast Iron Charlie” Sorensen, Peter Martin, Bill Knudsen and others. They were the real brains behind their company’s early success. Elon would do well to heed Henry’s example.

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