Tesla produced a record 72,531 Model 3 electric sedans in the second quarter of 2019.
Employees in the open-air GA4 “tent,” which is not fully automated, tell CNBC they were pressured to take shortcuts to hit those goals -- reducing vehicle testing for water leaks, and using electrical tape to make quick fixes during Model 3 assembly.
Employees in the tent have also had to work through harsh weather and unhealthy air quality, they say. . . .
For instance, four people who worked on the assembly line say they were told by supervisors to use electrical tape to patch cracks on plastic brackets and housings, and provided photographs showing where tape was applied. They and four additional people familiar with conditions there describe working through high heat, cold temperatures at night and smoky air during last year’s wildfires in Northern California.
Their testimony highlights the difficult balance Tesla must strike as it ramps up production while trying to stem costs. . . .
A Tesla spokesperson said the anecdotes employees shared about work in the tent are “misleading and do not reflect our manufacturing practices or what it’s like to work at Tesla.”
The spokesperson said many of the shortcuts described by employees, such as using electrical tape during assembly, are not approved procedure, and that cars are rigorously inspected before shipping. Tesla also said that the company’s first-pass yields at Fremont are higher than ever -- a measurement that indicates Tesla is producing good cars, and scrapping or re-working fewer units, than it did historically.
Regarding working conditions in the tent, Tesla said, “We work hard to create a work environment that is as safe, fair and fun as possible, and it is incredibly important to us that employees look forward to coming to work every day. In fact, we have a large number of employees who request to work on GA4 based on what they hear from colleagues and what they have seen first-hand. . . .”
Workers told CNBC that GA4 is now able to produce up to 120 cars per shift, across three shifts per day, amounting to 2,160 Model 3s in a perfect six-day week, or around 30,000 per quarter assuming maximum rates of production. . . .
Six other current and former employees corroborated their accounts of work in GA4, but asked to remain un-named.
These people said that while work in GA4 is physically demanding, many people like working there because the atmosphere is good and camaraderie is strong. They can listen to music while they work, with a supervisor’s approval, and don’t always have to wear a uniform, they said.
At the same time, workers were encouraged to take shortcuts to hit their production goals in the tent, according to five people who work or worked there recently.
For example, when it’s cold in the tent, workers tend to break a high number of plastic brackets and housings that hold critical electronics in place inside of the Model 3, according to four of these people.
Rather than waiting for replenishment teams to deliver boxes of new plastic parts to their stations in GA4, supervisors told workers to use vinyl electrical tape to make quick fixes, they say. Carlos Aranda says he personally visited WalMart multiple times to buy the tape and other items for production associates.
For instance, this photo shows tape applied to a segment of a white plastic housing where it holds “triple cam” connections in place inside of a Model 3. The Arandas said the edge of this plastic housing piece would frequently crack during installation, and tape was often applied here to hold down the resulting, hinge-like flap. . . .
Workers say they took other short cuts to hit aggressive new production targets, too.
Five people who work or worked in the tent in 2019 said they would frequently pass cars down the line that they knew were missing a few bolts, nuts or lugs, all in the name of saving time.
In the tent, most workers have just a couple of minutes to complete a process. If a small item was missing, or a bolt was not torqued in perfectly, they would rather keep cars moving than stop the line and be seen as a bottleneck to production, they said.
In particular, these people said, aeroshields are often missing a middle bolt, and loose connections in body controllers are a common issue.
For example, this photo shows the power supply for a distribution block in the front right vehicle controller in a Model 3. A nut is missing that should be there to secure electrical connections.
Wires in this part of the car go to the touchscreen, car computer, door latches and window regulators on the right hand side of the Model 3, while the red cable distributes power into the systems on the right hand side.
Although it’s a low-voltage connection, if it’s not properly secured, it can heat up and cause problems, the former Tesla technician said. Model 3s with loose connections can be hard to detect during inspections, the ex-technician and factory workers said.
esla said the company “has a robust quality assurance team that reviews each vehicle at the end of the GA4 assembly line to ensure every car was built correctly and is perfect before it leaves our factory to go to customers.”
Current and former employees also said Tesla reduced “water testing” on cars as the company began ramping up production of Model 3s.
In a water test, a vehicle goes into a booth where jets blast it with water from all different directions. Any leaks in the seals are immediately found and fixed. The tests take about 10 minutes each.
In late 2018, Tesla changed its policy and now only conducts sample testing for water leaks on Model 3s.
Since then, if workers see an issue with the urethane seals around a Model 3 glass roof, for example, they can request a water test. But many in GA4 are hesitant to make that request because of time pressure and a lack of experience or training that they need to identify flaws, a current associate said. . . .
Mike Ramsey, senior automotive research director at Gartner, said that even before Tesla put a Model 3 assembly line in a tent, it had a “ship-it-now, fix-it-later” mentality inspired by software patching.
Tesla’s focus, instead, has been to exceed expectations in other areas like brand, vehicle acceleration or charging, he said. While Tesla has been successful with those efforts, he noted: “Every time a car rolls off the lot and a piece of trim falls off, or an electrical system is failing after a month, it undermines the brand. That customer is not likely to buy another Tesla.”
Ramsey also said, “The idea that you would not stop the line, and would patch something with spit and bailing wire -- OK, not literally that, but close to it -- almost certainly injects quality issues down the road that they are going to have to fix. . . .”