Tesla Opens R&D Labs and Test Shops to Reporters, Unveils Model S's Flat Battery

By Scott Doggett October 7, 2010

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By Scott Doggett, Contributing Editor

PALO ALTO, Calif. - In what it called its first official open house, Tesla Motors Wednesday gave the media its first look at  the company's  headquarters, its swappable flat Model S battery, its various testing labs and fabrication shops, and its new Roadster production facilities.

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Since moving from a forgettable 30,000-square-foot building in nearby San Carlos into the 370,000-square-foot former Hewlett-Packard semiconductor plant on 23 acres near Stanford University six months ago, all but a press room, a restroom and the lobby had been off-limits to reporters.

And even on this day, the dozen invited reporters were told to keep their cameras turned off; photography was not permitted due to all of the secretive processes presented to us.

Although there were no big announcements, Tesla's vice president and chief engineer for vehicle engineering, Peter Rawlinson, said during a Model S presentation that the vehicle's platform would also serve as a platform for a Tesla crossover utility vehicle, an SUV and other vehicles - all fully battery-electric, of course.

"There are a range of models that are under consideration for that," he said. The company had previously mentioned plans to build such vehicles, but this is the first time it said a universal platform was under development, not simply a platform specific to the Model S.

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As we've reported, the Model S is slated to enter production at Tesla's newly acquired 5.5-million-square-foot facility in Fremont, roughly a 10-minute drive from Tesla's HQ.

Like the platform, the bottom of the Model S is also something we can expect to see more of in Tesla design - an absolutely flat surface from axle to axle and side to side that is in fact the battery pack. When removed, the pack appears to be six inches tall, four or so feet wide and about six feet long.

The housing is sheet metal and smooth enough to drop marbles on with no expectation they'd roll anywhere. Inside the rectangular metal box are modules containing thousands of laptop batteries that, we were told, continue to outperform the big boxy batteries General Motors and other automakers favor.

What's more, in the unlikely event of a "thermal incident" - a Tesla engineer put the odds of that at one in 5 million - containing the fire and/or explosion threat is much easier to do in a pack filled with little batteries than a big-block battery, we were told. Seems logical.

Rawlinson and other Tesla engineers referred to the pack as being "swappable," but would not elaborate other than to say that a tremendous amount of infrastructure work lay ahead for swappable batteries to work in a service-station-like setting.

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At least one engineer said the Better Place model, where an EV pulls into a station and its battery is quickly swapped out for another, was unfeasible due to the complexity and variety of the batteries that will eventually be on the market.

That said, the same engineer put the amount of time required to swap one battery pack for another in the Model S at about a minute. That's much faster than it takes to fill an empty tank of gas in most vehicles. 

Before starting what for this reporter would be a fantastic tour into rooms where brilliant minds from Stanford, MIT, various other automakers and fields as diverse as the medical and locomotive-transportation industries, Jim Dunlay, vice president of powertrain hardware engineering, took a minute to describe what the move into the new three-story Tesla HQ did for the company.

It enabled Tesla to bring in-house many of the testing, development, prototyping and manufacturing operations for their Roadster as well as the battery packs it makes for Daimler and other automakers, and it will permit the company to do the development and validation of the Model S as it moves toward launch, he said.

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The $42-million purchase of the former Toyota plant in Fremont, where the Model S will enter serial production, will allow Tesla to grow a substantial manufacturing operation, Dunlay said. That will allow Tesla to bring in-house body fabrication, stamping, painting and other operations, which will save the company time and money by drastically reducing the amount of items that are shipped to vendors for the work. 

The tour started with a walk through the company's personnel spaces, which set the stage for one of Tesla's engineering and manufacturing themes, which Dunlay described as "light and tight." The entire top floor of Tesla's HQ consists of large open rooms filled with work stations - not the corridors and offices common to automakers the world over.

"Take down the barriers and the walls and encourage a high degree of collaboration across departments. That creates a very tight working relationship and a very tight turnaround loop between R&D, testing, manufacturing, supply chain and all the facets of the operation necessary to build a high-quality and capable product," Dunlay explained.

And where does CEO Elon Musk and the other executives have their offices? They don't. Their desks are on the main floor, no bigger or fancier than anyone else's. Indeed, the furniture looked like it came from Ikea. Simple, inexpensive, utilitarian.

Musk wasn't in, it turned out, because he was in Las Vegas at Toyota's annual dealer meeting, displaying, alongside Toyota President Akio Toyoda, the RAV4 EV that Toyota plans to sell in the U.S. by 2012. The RAV4 EV contains a battery pack developed by Tesla one floor below Musk's desk. Indeed, the entire existing RAV4 EV fleet was assembled at Tesla's HQ.

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From the personnel floor, where only one office exists (for Human Resources; think interviews, employee files), we were taken to Powertrain Operations, where Tesla builds battery, motor and transmission products for the Roadster as well as battery packs that Tesla is selling to other automakers (to be clear, Tesla doesn't make batteries, but it does make battery packs and related components). It is also there that Tesla builds the battery packs for the Smart ED, Mercedes A-Class EV and, again, the Toyota RAV4 EV.

Later we were taken into testing facilities that Tesla was not able to avail themselves of internally prior to moving into its new headquarters. Those facilities allow Tesla to do quick turnaround, experimental testing, validation testing, qualification testing and build quality into their products from a very early stage.

We saw the laboratories where Tesla does the R&D for its motors, power electronics, gearboxes, heating and air-con systems, user interfaces, the cells used in Tesla battery packs and more.

The Cell Characterization Lab was one such place. It's where technicians take cells from all of the different makers of laptop batteries and measure the trade-offs between them. For example, some exceed at cycle-life testing, others at low-temperature testing, others at storage testing.

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The idea is to test them all and see which come out on top. Tesla claims to have accumulated more than 14 million hours of cell-testing data. It is also in this lab that technicians study how their own vehicles are doing, using data plucked from Roadsters every time they come in for servicing. On Tuesday night, the 1,300-plus Roadsters in service had cumulatively traveled over 7 million miles, supplyg Tesla with lots of intel along the way.

Inside the Motors and Gearbox Lab, we learned that there are no rare earths inside Tesla motors. Rare-earth magnets, found in many electric motors, contain materials that can be environmentally devastating if not disposed of properly.

We got a good look at a Roadster motor, which is about the size of a watermelon, weighs a mere 100 pounds, but can generate more than 250 horsepower. The engineers have increased the capabilities of the motor for the Model S, which will be a heavier car.

We were told that an important new piece of machinery arrives at Tesla HQ at least once a month that allows the company to save the time and cost that would otherwise be spent sending components out to third parties for testing. One of the recent arrivals was an enormous vibration table that tests how well components can handle shaking.

"What is does is allow us to simulate the severe shock and vibration environments that are seen by the components that are in these vehicles," said Dorian West, director of battery engineering. "If you look at that big round section there," he said, pointing, "that's essentially a 65,000-watt subwoofer. It allows us to simulate a full lifetime of abuse in just the span of a week, so we can see the types of parts that will fail immediately.

"And instead of having to spend a week shipping parts to another facility in some other part of the country, we are able to keep this stuff in-house. Engineers can see what parts are failing or not failing in real time. It's a huge increase in our capabilities."

Hot, Hot, Hot

Nearby was a "thermal chamber," a big box that goes over the vibration table and allows Tesla techs to evaluate how parts perform while being vibrated and exposed to temperatures ranging from negative 70 degrees Celsius (158 degree Fahrenheit) all the way to 170 degrees Celsius (338 degrees Fahrenheit).

One of the most impressive areas of the more than a dozen we were shown was the Prototype Room, a lab filled with fabrication tools where all trained employees can come with an idea for a concept and use a bandsaw or other tool to quickly prototype what they have in mind "and really have a hands-on experience with that. The financial advantage of this shop is that we have really fast design cycles," West said.

Continuing on we came to the Advanced Vehicles Shop. It consisted of a bunch of hydraulic lifts like you'd expect to find in a new auto mechanics shop, and numerous wheeled toolboxes the size of large desks. But they were only the tip of the iceberg, we were told.

Using them is a talented team of electrical and mechanical engineers and fabricators and service technicians who create really refined prototypes in a matter of weeks that can be used to test proof of concepts, we were told.

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For example, the team put together a refined Smart ED in just six weeks. The electric Mercedes A-Class only took six weeks to make. "By the time we got to a more recent project, it was only a four-week effort. And we've done vehicles even faster than that," West said.

One thing we didn't get a chance to see was Tesla's vehicle-engineering operation, because most of it remains in Southern California, although we were told it will move up here over coming months as Tesla starts ramping up for production of the Model S.

Tesla's design team is in Hawthorne, near Los Angeles, and will remain there because L.A. has developed into an automotive design center. BMW and many other automakers have design centers there; Tesla believes it should, too.

What the tour communicated most of all, to this reporter anyway, is that Tesla is primarily an R&D company - and excellent one, if Daimler and Toyota's involvement with Tesla is any indication - that aspires to be a world-class manufacturing company.

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