by Jack Heller
Tesla has a Willy Wonka-esque appeal to our generation. Elon Musk is one of the most interesting entrepreneurs in the modern world, and the success of Tesla has been unique. As our professor said, Tesla is an extremely rare example of a company that enters a market and almost immediately rises to a sustaining, rather than a disruptive position in the market it is associated with. The Tesla name screams luxury and perfection. It seems futuristic, and mysterious. How does Tesla do it? Our group was lucky enough to find out.
Toby Kraus, a Duke alum, greeted us outside the massive warehouse/factory tucked away in Fremont, CA. We started by walking in to the lobby area, which seemed normal. As we entered the work space, the layout of the desks was similar to some of the other places we have seen thus far. There seems to be a trend of having multiple desks all within a large open space, rather than individual offices or cubicles, allowing for conglomeration and teamwork to assemble. We then arrived at the open warehouse where the materials were stored, and the prototypes were on display. Toby noted how the first Tesla prototype cost well over $1 million to make. I guess when one is designing a car trying to accomplish what Tesla set out to do, it makes sense that some pretty immense overhead costs would go into the first attempt. As Toby said, you have to start somewhere.
The most fascinating part of the visit was when we got into the production portion of the factory, where we got to see the different steps in which the Tesla cars are made. It is truly impressive that they make their entire product in house. There are massive mechanical claw machines, presses, welders, and factory workers constantly rushing around with materials. While there were no Oompa Loompas, it certainly seemed productive. To an outsider, it also had a sense of chaos, purely because it was so new to us. We were trying to take in as much as we could, in awe of the robotically programmed claws lifting parts of the car and putting them together, of the hot press that turned a sheet of aluminum into a perfectly crafted part of the car in seconds, and the constantly active network of workers driving around parts to other processes. Toby mentioned that when he was hired, he actually worked in the production process for a couple of days; the company really wants its employees to truly understand the ins and outs of the entire company.
We finished the tour outside by inspecting a real Model S Tesla. We all got to sit inside, check it out, and dream about the idea of owning one. We got really lucky with the surprise appearance of one of the engineers on the team that designed the car, Huibert Mees. A Duke alum, he also shed some light on the differences between working on the design team for a big motor company like Ford, and a smaller one like Tesla. He said the beauty of the Tesla process was that they looked for things theycould do, rather than what they couldn’t. He and Toby both emphasized how Elon Musk will not take no for an answer. Unless there is a law of physics preventing them from adding something to their vehicle, Musk will find a way to make it happen. He is truly a dreamer, and a sensational business leader who has taken both Tesla and SpaceX to front page news. It was also helpful to hear some career advice from these two. Toby started in finance for two years on Wall Street before turning down another offer. He decided he had been pursuing what other people had laid out as a typical route to success. Instead, he wanted to switch to a job that he was truly interested in and passionate about. Huibert said he dreamed from day one of designing cars, and he has never wavered from pursuing that dream. Both emphasized that we should find something we are passionate about, and not to do something purely for the money. Overall, the Tesla site visit was one of the most fascinating ones yet, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have the opportunity to see Elon Musk’s Chocolate Factory.