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Building Tesla

At its electric-car factory in Silicon Valley, Tesla obsesses over details like making its own high-tech tools. Photographs by John Stocklin

Just as Tesla’s cars don’t feel like anything from Detroit, the ­California factory that produces the company’s upcoming Model S electric sedan is inspired as much by Tesla’s high-tech neighbors in Silicon Valley as by a typical auto plant. In particular, Tesla is obsessive about taking care of details itself—whether it’s forming the cars’ bodies from scratch or making tools for the robots that build the vehicles.

Tesla Motors will deliver its first batch of Model S sedans this July. Here, one is guided past a series of robotic spray-paint guns.

Aside from the battery cell, Tesla builds almost every part of the Model S at its plant in Fremont, California.

A computerized milling machine, seen here, uses various heads (previous slide) to create tools for the robots (see next slide) that manipulate parts and assemble cars.

Producing things in-house means better quality control, says Gilbert Passin, Tesla’s vice president of manufacturing.

The battery cell for the Model S is ready to be installed. Passin says Tesla designed the car so that the battery goes in almost the way one would be put into a laptop: “It basically just plugs into the car.”

The body of the Model S is constructed mostly from aluminum, which arrives at the factory in the form of a 20,000-pound coil.

A finished Model S will start at just under $50,000; fully loaded Signature models will cost about $98,000. Given that price, some doubt that Tesla’s approach, cool or not, is viable in the long term. “Look at the [Chevrolet] Volt,” says Jay Baron, president of the Center for Automotive Research. “That’s not selling, and that’s at $40,000. I would see the future as being very challenging for Tesla.” ­Passin sounds confident nonetheless: “Not one day goes by when [Tesla cofounder] Elon Musk doesn’t remind me—as if I would forget—that this factory is capable of making half a million vehicles a year. There’s no doubt in my mind that this factory is going to be full, sooner rather than later.”

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