The fantasy of a “lights out” plant—an automated plant so lacking in human presence that it could operate in the dark—has long been discussed in theoretical terms. In the 1980s Roger Smith, the late GM chief executive, pushed his manufacturing executives to begin to “robotize” assembly plants. Just as influential has been Toyota’s manufacturing system, which relies on low-tech principles such as just-in-time supply chain, standardized work procedures, and employee involvement in continuous improvement and efficiency to dramatically drive down manufacturing costs. GM developed its own version, the Global Manufacturing System, and for a time operated a collaboration on manufacturing methods with Toyota in the same building in Fremont that Tesla operates today.

State-of-the-art car factories rely on assembly-line workers as well as programmable machines. With a typical assembly line producing around 60 vehicles an hour or roughly 1,000 a day on two eight-hour work shifts, a line might, at the outside, be able to manufacture more than 250,000 vehicles a year. (Several North American automotive assembly plants operate on three shifts of six-and-a-half hours. The biggest produce more than 500,000 vehicles a year.) The two-shift total assumes production goes flawlessly. Factor in supplier parts shortages, machinery breakdowns, quality problems, labor issues and changes to vehicle design, and annual production drops to the more typical 100,000 to 150,000 vehicles per assembly line per year.

Those numbers show how hard a task Musk set for his company when he promised to ramp up production to 500,000 cars two years from now. The CEO may yet come up with some new surprise to keep his company in the game, but this deadline is destined to be missed.

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