Yesterday was quite a day in Reno. While we weren’t able to fire off our livestream as we’d hoped, we were able to gather a ton of information on the “Coolest Factory in the world” I’ll break down the new info, videos and imagery below:
Reno and the trip to the Gigafactory:
Reno is a small-ish gambling town in the valley near Lake Tahoe with the Truckee river running through it. It hasn’t been hit nearly as hard by the West Coast drought as Las Vegas and California. But the weather was in the triple digits when we visited and smoke from the Monterey wildfires made it hazy which made foot traffic around town a rarity.
We’d get news later direct from Elon Musk that the factory would employ 10,000 mostly skilled workers eventually, up from the already substantial 6,500 that Tesla previously stated. There will also be a small army of temporary construction workers and added Nevada road workers including another onramp for the nearby route 50 which will be an important raw materials corridor.
Talking to a few locals, everyone seemed happy and really excited about Tesla’s new monster factory and what it meant for the local economy. I was told housing prices were on the rise (20% rise in recent years) and also with the help of the Burning Man festival, a new arts and cultural scene was emerging. Apple, Amazon and others also have sprawling data centers in the area though they don’t employ nearly as many employees as Tesla will.
We took an ICE shuttle to the Gigafatory even though there were about 20 Model S and Xes on hand. It was about a 30 minute trip if you omit a wrong turn our driver took. He somehow missed this at the entrance:
I asked a few folks about this “protest” and the consensus was that they were paid placement by one of Tesla’s “enemies”. The Jaguar they drove over might have been a giveaway on that.
The Gigafactoy is so F-ing big
As I approached the Gigafactory, the scale (and this was a theme throughout the day) wasn’t easily processed by my brain. I think this is one of the reasons that Tesla brought us out to Reno. You have to see/experience this size and scope to even be able to attempt to get your head around it. This is many football fields of space indoors and yet it is only a small part of what the final plan entails… and 3 of the four walls are temporary!
We’ve seen the front entrance before but Tesla had put their red Model 3 prototype outside the front entrance this time. Fred posted a great set of photos I took but it is just a plastic model that was made long before the announcement earlier this year. If you look at the underside, it looks like something that Faraday Future would show off at an event (I kid!):
“The best factory in the world”
Inside, we found some really cool models of the Gigafactory inside and out. Like really cool. I made a video:
Notice the HVACs being built between the floors rather than on walls and ceilings of a floor. That was the theme: This is a factory, yes. But it is the coolest factory on planet earth and probably Mars too for the time being. Innovation at the factory level was a huge priority and the reward would be extremely high. It was so cool that we couldn’t take any videos or pictures of the neatest stuff. But I’ll explain what I saw:
Panasonics’s 2+ story high machines filled huge rooms that looked like the things that make Star-bellied Sneetches. There was one each for anode and cathode. Artist’s rendition:
There was also a room for storing and aging battery packs which was again out of comprehension huge. We visited a few “dry rooms”. Batteries, like microprocessors, need a very clean room to be built without defects except the enemy isn’t particles but actually water vapor. These rooms are kept particularly dry which may have given Reno a leg up when the choice was made (something I predicted way back when).
The build out of the factory is also incredibly interesting. Instead of building one structure as it looks like from the outside, Tesla is building many structures in sections. Partly for convenience of buildout and partly because the area is earthquake prone, each smaller section of the Gigafactory is its own structure with its own foundation. I don’t know how that affects its chances of being the one of the biggest buildings in the world, but it certainly helps its chances/minimizes damages during an earthquake.
So the thing that is operating is huge. Then the add ons on both sides are way bigger. Then you look at the eventual size and it is hard to get your head around:
You can see from the images above/below that only 3 out of the final 16 or so blocks is done or about 14%. 3 of the 4 walls aren’t permanent.
Only the wall facing the HVAC/Electrical above is a real wall. Here’s a gallery from a bunch of angles:
Announcement and QA:
As expected, most of the new information came from the announcement press conference and Q&A that followed. When it was my turn, I asked the status of the “20700” battery that has been reported to be going into Model 3. It is an upgrade from the long built ‘18650’ standard that has been used by Tesla since the Roadster (excellent background on why here from one of Tesla’s other founder). The 18650 name is just the form factor – meaning 18mm diameter and 65mm long. Similarly, the 20700 is a 20mm diameter and 70mm high.
Elon and JB elaborated with the following:
- They actually changed the size to 21mm diameter and a 70mm height. They also got rid of the trailing ‘0’ so the name of the battery that will be going into the Model 3 is the ’21-70′
- JB Straubel says Tesla developed this battery this size by starting without preconceived notions. They then optimized for efficiency, size and output. The 18650 standard was called an accident of history though it had served Tesla and others well. Tesla says it predicts that this new 21-70 battery size will become a new standard.
- The half centimeter height increase for the car packs would be offset with more efficient battery packaging which will make the packs actually the same thickness or less than current packs and obviously with a higher energy density.
- Musk noted that once the 21-70s were in mass production, they could find their way into existing Tesla car battery packs for the Model S and X as well as the Powerwall.
The quotes via CleanTech:
JB: “We’ve spent a lot of time on this actually. It’s kind of interesting. There are a bunch of tradeoffs. There are some things that get better when you make the cell size bigger, and some things that get worse. 18650 was sort of an accident of history. That was what was standardized for early products. So we revisited all of those tradeoffs and came to this size, which is quite a bit bigger. If you have them next to each other, the actual volume of materials inside is substantially more. And overall it’s about cost optimization.”
Elon: “It really comes from the first principles of physics and economics. That’s the way we try to analyze everything. To say like if no cell existed in the world, what size should it be? What is the size that would achieve the product characteristics we’re looking for, but would be fundamentally optimal? 18650 is not optimal.”
Some other notes from the Q&A:
- Tesla expects to hit the $100/kWh mark at or before 2020 for batteries which is close to the inflection point at which it begins costs less to build an electric powertrain than ICE even without subsidies or the savings of electricity vs. gas.
- When asked whether Tesla will become a power company or “Energy player” , Straubel nodded to Musk and said yep. There are clearly some interesting plans here.
- Panasonic executive vice president Yoshihiko Yamada thought Elon and Co. were crazy initially when they proposed this idea. Eventually he saw the light and now the companies are closer than ever. Here’s how he put it: “Three years ago I thought this gigantic Gigafactory idea was crazy. Because then the production of the factory would exceed production of the industry. I thought it was a crazy idea. But I was crazy, and I was wrong after seeing extreme success of the announcement of the Model 3 and the strong demand…I want to explain to you the relationship with Tesla and Panasonic. I used to be in charge of components five or six years ago. At that time our relationship with Tesla was one of supplier and customer. A conventional business relationship.“But since we started discussion on the Gigafactory that’s completely changed. One example, is production capacity is now two or three times more. Why? Because Tesla and manufacturing people worked together. We are discussing these details. This type of relationship is quite new for business. We are not the simple buyer and supplier relationship.”
- When asked about how Tesla would get money to finance the Semis, pickup and Model Y, Musk noted that this was all on a timeline and the Model 3 would be bringing in multiple tens of billions of dollars of revenue ($20B in 2020 alone) over its production run. Musk did note that in these ramps, it would be possible that Tesla would need to raise some capital. Musk noted that figuring out the ‘S’ curve of the ramp was extremely hard to do and slight deviations could mean huge variances in deliveries.
We’re still hoping that a full video of the Q&A becomes available since there were like 30 cameras recording the whole thing. If so we’ll update this post.