Flying the Glider: Roadster Owner Ken Jacobs Tours Assembly Plant and Test Track
by Ken Jacobs
published Friday, July 18th, 2008
I was amazed to see that it is entirely a manual process. No robots. No power tools. Just simple screwdrivers and wrenches and some pulleys mounted from above to hoist heavy components. The Roadster is clearly a hand-made vehicle, with a lot of love and personal attention given to each vehicle as a result. The main assembly line in Hethel has 12 stations, at each of which the workers have 43 minutes to do the work required to move the car along. Each station has 2 or 3 guys working on a phase of the assembly process, whether it’s integrating the pre-built chassis with the frame, installing the wheels and brakes, the windshield, the body panels or the seats.
At each step, the technicians must be very aware of the specific car they are building, and whether it is a Tesla Roadster or a Lotus Elise. The Roadster and the Elise are different vehicles, of course, and have many different parts, even though they share the same assembly line. The workers ensure that each Roadster gets the right Tesla parts, installed to Tesla specifications for such things as the proper torque levels for tightening bolts, etc. At the end of the line, after 12×43 minutes (about 8 hours), something very much like a Lotus Elise or a Tesla Roadster will emerge.
The Lotus assembly line was specially modified for the Roadster, to accommodate the installation of the 900-pound ESS (”energy storage system”), the car’s battery. The original intent was to ship complete and drivable Roadsters from the UK to the US. This has now changed. My understanding is that when Tesla begins installing powertrain 1.5 in new Roadsters, it will be done in California. Thus, everything but the battery and powertrain will be installed in Hethel. The resulting so-called “glider” is then shipped to California (about 5-6 weeks by boat, I’m told). For each battery, 6,831 lithium ion cells are sent from Japan to California, where the battery is built. This change saves Tesla shipping costs, and makes the Roadster a “California car”. The Tesla Store about to open in Menlo Park will do the final installation of the battery and powertrain.