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A Tesla employee who builds robots told us why production hell is actually a good thing

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Sheena Tesla

Sheena Patterson with one
of Tesla’s giant robots.

Matthew
DeBord/Business Insider


  • Sheena Patterson is a staff manufacturing engineer at
    Tesla.
  • She’s working to build the machine that builds the
    machine: Tesla’s highly automated assembly line for the Model
    3.
  • She also knows how to create robots.

Editor’s note: Business Insider had the chance to speak with
four Tesla employees from different parts of the company to learn
more about their work. And what we discovered were some of the
coolest jobs at Tesla. This is the fourth in the series. You can
read the other profiles here.


Engineers are great at identifying and solving problems. They’re
students of the practical, scrutinizers of systems, and, at
Tesla, pretty much heroes. Few companies in history have so
thoroughly combined a compelling vision of the future with
innovative ways to design, build, power, and sell cars.

What engineers aren’t always great at, though, is talking about
engineering. They’re technicians, not poets. But Sheena
Patterson, a staff manufacturing engineer who’s been at Tesla for
nearly three years, is the exception.

Her thing is what’s called general assembly, which means creating
production lines that can mass-produce the equipment that makes
the cars Tesla sells.

Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, calls it “the machine that builds the
machine.”

Patterson does him one better: “The factory is the symphony, and
the car is the song.”

A relatively recent graduate of the University of Michigan,
Patterson got her start at Ford, where it was trial by fire,
working on the launch of the risky aluminum-body F-150 pickup
truck that the carmaker rolled out several years ago. Ford then
offered her a desk job at its plant in Kansas City, Missouri, but
Patterson wasn’t ready to hang up her safety goggles and
steel-toed boots quite yet.

“I was very much young and awake and ready to do more,” she said,
sitting in a break area at Tesla’s factory in Fremont,
California. She’s dressed casually in jeans and a plaid shirt,
ready for a day spent doing what she loves: working with her
hands, “tearing things apart and making them better,” as she puts
it.

The perfect fit and timing


Tesla Factory

Patterson’s office.
Benjamin Zhang/Business
Insider


Tesla turned out to be the perfect fit — and Patterson’s decision
to join the company was perfect timing.

She started just as Tesla was launching the Model X, a
complicated vehicle to build. With her expertise in systems
design and robotics, which dates to her undergraduate days, she
could make an immediate contribution.

She designed a robot that now sits on the combined Model S-Model
X assembly line where glass panels are glued and attached to the
Model X.

Smaller than the massive orange robots at Fremont that can sling
around entire vehicle bodies, Patterson’s robot — named Gambit,
for the superhero from the “X-Men” comics — is yellow, about as
large as an adult, and encased in Plexiglas.

Its job is to apply adhesive — something formerly done by
multiple workers, who had to use glue guns and work on tables set
up next to the assembly line. Gambit draws adhesive from large
barrels and can save Tesla time and money on this delicate phase
of production.

It’s a glimpse into Musk’s plans for factories of the future:
almost fully automated, with robots that can build cars so fast
that air resistance becomes a problem.

Patterson is smack in the middle of that revolution. She’s
currently working on the new highly automated Model 3 assembly
line.

The assembly line is everything


Tesla Model X

Patterson
arrived at Tesla just as production of the Model X SUV was
beginning.

Justin Sullivan/Getty
Images


Patterson’s daily work routine depends on where Tesla is at with
production.

If cars aren’t yet being mass-produced, she’ll arrive at the
factory, make calls to suppliers, conduct design reviews, and
then head out to the factory floor to see what’s happening with
an assembly line.

She’s part of a group of about 50 employees, but her day-to-day
team has only about half a dozen members.

Once a vehicle is in production, however, the day starts with a
walk on the assembly line.

“It’s been running all night,” she says. “You might have been
getting calls; you might not. Sometimes no news is good news.”

Then it’s desk work, as the engineers use what they’ve learned to
make the machine that builds the machine run better.

“But it’s probably 75% on the line,” Patterson said.

This routine puts Patterson at the center of what Musk has often
called “production hell,” a term that has taken on negative
connotations as Tesla has struggled since last year to ramp up
Model 3 assembly.

But for an engineer, hell can be a type of heaven.

“It’s something that manufacturing goes through,” Patterson said.
“Anytime you do it, it’s going to be difficult. But what’s really
cool here is that everybody is banding around it, while at the
Big Three” — General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler — “it is
manufacturing’s problem.

“Here we say, ‘No, no, no, it’s everybody’s problem,’ because
it’s just our third car and it’s that much more important,” she
said. “We’re still calling up design to come to the floor.”

A consequence of this less segregated approach to production,
Patterson explains, is that Tesla’s vehicles can be more
thoroughly designed to be manufactured.

In the traditional industry, vehicles are handed off from one
group to the next. But at Tesla, an overarching ambition is to
remake the entire manufacturing process — so if engineers like
Patterson who are working to increase automation can communicate
more fluidly with designers, Tesla vehicles can be designed with
those advantages in mind.

Joining the revolution


Tesla Factory

“The machine that builds
the machine” — someday.

Benjamin
Zhang/Business Insider


If Musk and Tesla succeed in this reimagining of the car factory,
it will be the first new major innovation in manufacturing since
Toyota created the famed Toyota Production System in the 1970s
and 1980s. And it would add a level of irony if it were to happen
at Tesla’s Fremont factory, which was once jointly owned by
Toyota and GM so that GM could learn the now vaunted “Toyota
way.”

Patterson has seen automaking from one end to the other. Her
first experience with a car factory was on a family trip to
India, where she saw a Tata plant and witnessed firsthand
old-school manufacturing. Ford advanced her knowledge, but Tesla
has taken any abstraction out of her job and compelled her to
focus on how things happen in reality, on the assembly line, in
real time.

So what’s more beautiful to Patterson in the end? The gorgeous
Tesla vehicles, or the beautiful assembly line she has helped
design and create?

She doesn’t miss a beat — the line.

“I get a thrill going to Tesla stores,” she said. “And when I
tell the people there I work at Fremont, their eyes light up,
because I get to work at the factory.”



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