Elon Musk’s “Alien Dreadnought” factory could see a second coming when Tesla Model Y is ready for production ramp, thanks to recent advancements in computer vision.
Before Tesla started the Model 3 ramp, Elon Musk described his vision for a hyper-automated factory that he described as “the machine that builds the machine.” Addressing investors, Musk revealed that the project’s code name was the “Alien Dreadnought,” a reference to the futuristic spacecraft usually utilized by extraterrestrials in sci-fi movies. Musk planned to use the Alien Dreadnought for the Model 3 ramp, and he expected the automated factory to be operational by 2018.
This timeline proved to be too optimistic, with the Tesla CEO later admitting that he had been far too enthusiastic with the Model 3 production line’s automation. “Humans are underrated,” Musk admitted in an interview with CBS. Ultimately, it was a combination of traditional human work and non-Alien-Dreadnought type of automation that became a breakthrough for the Model 3 ramp. Tesla has since gotten the hang of Model 3 production, with the company producing enough vehicles for the US, as well as Europe and China (at least for selected regions) today.
According to Ryan Kottenstette, who serves as the CEO of Cape Analytics, a group that conducts computer vision research, the challenges Tesla faced with the Model 3 ramp were caused by the limitations of robotic vision. Kottenstette notes that the robots Tesla utilized in the Model 3 line simply could not deal with unexpected events in the production process, such as different orientations of nuts and bolts, or complicated maneuvering between the car frame.
Musk mentioned one of these challenges in the Q1 2018 earnings call when he described a machine he fondly called “Flufferbot,” which had a lot of difficulties scooping out fiberglass mats (or “fluff” as Musk described it) for the Model 3 battery pack. Musk stated that Flufferbot eventually lost its job because it became evident that scooping out “fluff” is far easier when done with human hands.
Kottenstette argues that computer vision has progressed significantly in recent years, with approaches such as GANs (Generative Adversarial Networks) and unsupervised learning expanding the envelope of computer vision in terms of applications, robustness, and reliability. These advancements can help address some of the challenges faced by Tesla during the days of the Model 3 ramp. Coupled with Tesla’s proficiency in tech, and augmented by the company’s robust AI team, these new computer vision approaches can be leveraged to allow another attempt at Elon Musk’s “Alien Dreadnought” factory.
An opportunity is actually preseting itself for Tesla, as the company is scheduled to unveil the Model Y SUV next week. Just like the Model 3, the Model Y is a high-volume, mass-market vehicle, with Elon Musk expecting demand for the vehicle to go as high as 1 million units per year. Unlike the Model S, X, and Model 3, Tesla is set to start the initial production of the Model Y at Gigafactory 1 in Nevada, which means that the company can design and set up the SUV’s production lines from a blank slate. Thanks to the Model Y, Elon Musk’s “Alien Dreadnought” factory might end up being closer than we think.