Tesla Gigafactory: Thinking Big

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Tesla Gigafactory: Thinking Big

It’s hard to find a big company as innovative and, consequently, unconventional as Tesla. We take a close look at the Tesla Gigafactory and how it is building the factory of tomorrow in the Nevada Desert, and its plans for other ‘Gigafactories’ elsewhere.

by Rainer Claaßen

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla is well known for thinking big. Take the Gigafactory his company is currently building together with a few partners in the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center – and building it at record speed. The total land area covered is 3,200 acres, almost 13 million square meters. The diamond-shaped building itself has a footprint of 5.8 million square feet (over half a million square meters), which will make it the largest single building in the world by footprint and the second largest by total square footage. It is topped only by the Boeing Factory in Washington State.

Tesla Gigafactory 2015 Tesla Gigafactory Arial-View July 2016 Tesla Gigafactory January 2017The images were taken between 2015 and 2016 – showing how quickly the large factory is being built (click to zoom).

About 100 jumbo jets could be parked on the roof of the building. Depending on occupancy, there are between one and four floors in different areas of the edifice, which will be almost 22 meters high. To make such a large building safe from earthquakes, it is composed of four different structures built on separate foundations. Otherwise, the building itself is constructed in a rather conventional way, consisting of a steel frame with flexible interior walls as well as firewalls.

The gigafactory is the machine that builds the machine.

Elon Musk
CEO of Tesla Motor

Clean energy

Unlike other industrial complexes, power for production lines will come exclusively from renewable sources. The whole roof of the factory will be covered in solar panels, with total output scheduled to top 70 MW, under ideal conditions. To make the panels as efficient as possible, the building is aligned with the meridian (true north). More solar panels will be placed on surrounding hilltops. Of course, the factory’s location in the middle of a desert makes it comparatively easy to generate lots of renewable energy. In addition, geothermal and wind power will be used to energize the giant factory. Tesla is hoping to make do without using any fossil fuels at all.

Info: How Big is the Tesla-Gigafactory

How Big is the Tesla-Gigafactory

Critical mass

Tesla makes its money selling cars powered by electricity. Models so far have been quite successful, but rather expensive. The recently announced Model 3 is expected to enter the mass market, but this will only work if the target price of $35,000 per car can be achieved. Tesla hopes to sell a lot of cars, so huge quantities of batteries will be needed. And they, too, will need to be cheap. At the opening ceremony of the first tract of the factory in July 2016, it was pointed out the production capacity of lithium-ion batteries at the finished Gigafactory, which will look a bit like an integrated circuit, would exceed worldwide production capacity at that time. To achieve higher productivity, Tesla engineers had to completely reinvent the production process for the li-ion packs.

Tesla Gigafactory Production

Fitting it all together: the gigafactory consists of linked modules

The Gigafactory is being built in phases so that manufacturing can start immediately once a section is finished. This phased approach allows engineers to learn and continuously improve construction and operational techniques as they continue to drive down the cost of energy storage.
Many steps in the traditional battery production process are performed in different locations, often on different continents. For example, electrolytes are made at large chemical plants and graphite electrodes at facilities that also provide graphite for tires.

All in one place

The electrolytes and electrodes are then packaged into cells at a different dedicated plant, and the cells themselves assembled into battery packs with cooling systems and electronic controls at yet another location. This means materials have to be shipped again and again, making the whole production process much longer and more expensive than necessary. The traditional method does, however, retain some potential benefits. For example, it may still be cheaper to make electrolytes in a large plant that also produces other chemicals.
Panasonic, Tesla’s current battery cell supplier, is closely involved in planning and building the Gigafactory. In this way, Tesla stands to benefit from the know-how of the Panasonic workforce in Japan, many of whom have several decades of experience in the manufacturing process. At the factory, raw material will enter the building at one end and the finished battery packs will emerge from the other. Even the standard size of the cells had to be modified to increase efficiency. The cylindrical batteries made at the Gigafactory are called ‘2170’ because their size is exactly 21mm in diameter by 70mm long. That is both thicker and longer than the previous battery pack, the 18650 model that Tesla codeveloped with Panasonic.


Currently, only those processes for the production of huge quantities of batteries for stationary and incar uses are implemented in the factory. In the long run, Tesla is thinking of actually producing the cars themselves at this location which is another indicator of the factory’s flexibility. The factory design will allow for any future process changes required as battery technologies and architectures develop over the next decades. Because planners and engineers will work in the factory, these change processes will be applied much more rapidly than in traditional factories.

Tesla Gigafactory Powerwall

The Powerwall is for private use in the home and prices start at €6,200.

Robots, called automated guided vehicles (AGVs), move around the factory floor. They are commonly used in manufacturing for moving items from place to place, and navigate on their own by following magnetic strips on the floor. They are also equipped with sensors and a laser system to help guide them. In addition, robotic arms will assist humans in making battery packs. Last summer, there were more than 1,000 people employed in the factory. When the factory is finished, the workforce will swell to up to 10,000 people.

Use it again

The Gigafactory will not only make new packs but also recycle returned, exhausted packs. As Tesla is totally familiar with the construction of its own batteries, the recycling process will be very efficient. This will help make batteries a lot cheaper, because depleted packs from old cars and stationary power packs contain all the raw materials needed to build new cells and the cost is next to nothing, except for the transportation bill for returns.

Gigacost for Gigafactory

The total investment-cost for Tesla and its partners will probably exceed $5bn by 2020. Tesla itself has said it will invest about $2bn. The most important partner Panasonic is committed to an investment of around $1.6bn. It may seem to be a huge price tag but, if everything works out and Tesla sells as many cars as it hopes, other Gigafactories will spring up around the world. At the opening ceremony, Tesla’s flamboyant founder Musk spoke about building more Gigafactories in Europe and Asia, and strong rumors suggest plans exist to build a second factory in the Czech Republic.
Even if these plans seem gargantuan, the Gigafactory’s planned output of 500,000 cars per year is only a tiny fraction of the global automobile market. The Volkswagen group alone sold more than 10 million cars in 2015. If electric vehicles are to make a dent in the world auto market, then many more Gigafactories will be needed.Musk estimates 100 factories would be sufficient to supply the world. “Tesla can’t build 100 Gigafactories, so the thing that is really going to make the difference is if companies much larger than Tesla do the same thing,” Musk says. “If the big industrial companies in China, the US, and Europe – and the big car companies, if they also do this – then, collectively, we can accelerate the transition to sustainable energy. And, if government sets the rules to favor sustainable energy, we can get there really quickly.



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