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A rare, behind-the-scenes look at Tesla’s Gigafactory

The Gigafactory from above.
  • Michael J. Coren
By Michael J. Coren

Climate and emerging industries editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Elon Musk is building his dream factory in the Nevada desert. “I find this to be quite romantic,” he said during an interview session at the Gigafactory on Tuesday. “It feels like the Wild West.”

Located 24 miles outside of Reno, the Gigafactory is slated to be the largest building in the world (by footprint) once it’s completed sometime in the future, measuring 5.9 million square feet, about the size of 107 football fields. It’s needed to house Tesla’s outsized ambitions to build the world’s largest, most efficient battery factory, delivering 35 gigawatt hours of lithium-ion batteries each year by 2018, more than total worldwide production just a few years ago.

Like most of Musk’s dreams at the moment, only a fraction of the Gigafactory is complete (14% to be exact, says Tesla).

Quartz toured the facility on Tuesday, one of the first public viewings. ”Top secret” signs are still taped to windows where Panasonic is racing to install battery manufacturing equipment (the Japanese firm is a joint venture partner in the Gigafactory). Many of the rooms are wreathed in plastic sheets. A small core of Tesla workers are there reworking digital blueprints to accelerate the factory’s expansion two years ahead of schedule to meet demand for Tesla’s new Model 3 vehicle. Others are putting final touches on battery packs already being assembled for the company’s energy storage products, the Powerwall and Powerpack.

Nearly every square inch of the 3,200 acre site is marked out for future expansion. Tesla plans to spend upwards of $5 billion to finish it. We pulled together a few highlights from an afternoon at the Gigafactory.

Entering the Gigafactory

The road to the Gigafactory passes through miles of desert outside Reno. The landscape has little more than arid scrub, wild horses, and the occasional shipping depot. After turning up One Electric Drive, the scene shifts into one of constant motion. Cranes, surveyors, and earth movers move across a site under construction since 2014. Then comes a white, immaculate structure with a bold red stripe running across the top story of the building. It’s surrounded by acres of graded dirt, 10 times the area of the building, and hundreds of steel beams ready to be raised for the next expansion.

James Glover / Reuters

Welcomed by the Model 3
One of Tesla’s strategies for turning customers into evangelists is inviting them to its launch parties, one of which will happen this Friday as more than 2,000 Tesla owners and their guests descend on the Gigafactory. The team rolled out a Model 3 demo model for Tuesday’s tour.  The car appeared to be for demonstration only: workers pushed the car back across the parking lot to Friday’s event space.

Michael Coren / Quartz

Enter the Lobby

The Gigafactory’s ceilings rise more than 70 feet high in places to accommodate the enormous equipment Panasonic must install. Musk has taken advantage of the sweeping dimensions to design an all-white and red lobby that splashes Tesla’s logo to the sky. It has added a “1” after the Gigafactory. Musk says he wants to build a Gigafactory on every continent where there is sufficient demand.

Michael Coren / Quartz

Design touches everywhere
Tesla is an active construction site and assembly line. Visitors don fluorescent yellow vests, safety glasses, and Tesla-red hardhats to enter these areas, yet aesthetic attention has been paid in small places. Safety signs are custom designed. Tesla-red accents are painted on structural beams. The insides of elevator shafts have been painted white and emblazoned with the Tesla logo.

Michael Coren / Quartz

Battery pack manufacturing is already underway
Hundreds of employees work on the site’s 1.9 million square feet of operational space. Some cluster around flatscreens, debating the factory’s new architecture. Others use flash lights to check new battery packs for defects. These pictures, one of the few manufacturing areas where photography was permitted, show the assembly line for the company’s Powerwall and Powerpack products.

Michael Coren / Quartz
AP / Rich Pedroncelli

A few robots are ready
Robot arms load completed battery packs into a Powerpack unit before they’re shipped off to be used for stationary energy storage by businesses and utilities. The lithium-ion cells will be manufactured in the factory by the end of the year, replacing those imported from Panasonic’s factories in Asia.

Laying down steel
Workers are laying down a foundation for the Gigafactory’s third floor to support massive machinery. Tesla and Panasonic have redesigned the conventional battery factory by stacking it as much as four stories high, rather than today’s conventional horizontal layout. This ultimately reduces the size of the building, and increases the efficiency of the factory, unlocking cost savings Tesla hopes its competitors can’t match.

James Glover / Reuters

Step on the electrons
There is, of course, a test track to drive Tesla’s vehicles at high speeds.

Factory expansion in high gear
More than 1,000 workers are welding and riveting together the factory’s steel superstructure. Tesla expects 31% of the facility will be completed by 2017. It has set no date for  finishing the entire structure. Tesla plans to power the machinery with solar panels and offsite renewable energy. No fossil fuels will be used on site except in the gas tanks of visiting cars.

Building Section D

Walking through the Tesla factory brings visitors from polished concrete cleanrooms, sealed tight against elements that might ruin a battery, to areas where bare steel beams jut from the existing structure. Tesla plans to dissemble the factory’s exterior wells and move them outward as the expansion continues. Here, the southern side of the building, known as Section D, where lithium ore will enter the facility for processing into batteries, is under construction.

AP / Rich Pedroncelli

Securing against earthquakes
An aerial view of the site, shot from one of Tesla’s drones on Tuesday, shows the next wing taking shape, which will house Tesla’s expanded battery-assembly facilities. Panasonic, which is investing $1.6 billion in the facility, must move massive equipment into the factory, which lies within an earthquake zone along the West Coast. To secure against this, the company is sinking massive concrete foundations into the ground (as well as steel rods within the factory) to absorb any potential shaking.


Musk’s big hopes
Elon Musk appeared to discuss the Gigafactory seated next to J.B. Straubel, Tesla’s chief technical officer, and Yoshihiko Yamada, executive vice president of Panasonic. He was characteristically restrained. “I think the Gigafactory is the most exciting factory in the world,” he said.

James Glover / Reuters

A finished Gigafactory, imagined

Tesla says it will expand the Gigafactory incrementally to learn and improve its processes along the way. While slated to produce 35 GwH of batteries annually by 2018, the site could eventually manufacture three times New York city’s annual energy consumption (150 Mwh), assuming sufficient demand, says Musk.


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