Manufacturing is so hard. I have the utmost respect for those who build things.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 17, 2021
I recently read two articles in The Atlantic written by Robinson Meyer that resonated strongly with me. The first, my favorite of the two, discusses how America lost its lead in solar panel manufacturing to Japan and then China, despite leading the world in R&D spending. The second builds on the first but forecasts a similar trend for the American battery industry.
I’ve been asked why I didn’t pursue an academic or startup career. The implication, of course, is that industry is a “backup plan” for aspiring academics. I find this attitude towards industry perplexing, particularly in my field of batteries, given the extraordinary success the battery industry has had in driving down cost and enabling more affordable EVs over the past decade. With all due respect to many fantastic academics, my guess is that this attitude comes from underestimating the “glass-eating” complexity of scaling up energy technology. Perhaps due to the time I spent hanging out in my grandfather’s machine shop as a kid, I’ve long had a healthy appreciation for the challenges of making physical products on a large scale. Unlike software and even pharmaceuticals, manufacturing energy products is a low margin business; low profit margins means low margin for error, yet assumptions validated on the pilot line often fall flat on their face in mass production. In short, scaling manufacturing is the hard part of energy technology. The obscure problems Tesla and our suppliers face daily in scaling battery manufacturing would shock most academics, yet these obscure problems are what holds us back true mass-market EVs. These types of problems often require intricate, interdisciplinary solutions, all while under extreme time pressure. It’s complex, stressful, and even painful work — yet immensely satisfying and an amazing opportunity for growth as an engineer. Scaling manufacturing is underappreciated yet vitally important, and I hope more engineers give it a chance.
As a Tesla employee, I can’t say I agree with everything Elon Musk says or tweets. However, I am 100% aligned with his appreciation for manufacturing, perhaps going back to his days of sleeping on the Tesla factory floor. As a result, the Tesla Model 3 is the most American-made car, and electric vehicles (namely, Tesla vehicles) are California’s largest export. Tesla also appears to be the only American company serious about American battery manufacturing. As an American, I’m saddened by the loss of American manufacturing jobs, which certainly played a large role in the hollowing of the American middle class; I’m optimistic that cleantech manufacturing can help bridge that gap, and I’m proud to work for a company that is paving the way.
Prototypes are easy, production is hard— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 3, 2021
Production is hard. Production with positive cash flow is extremely hard.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 6, 2021