The recent BBC Radio 4 broadcast delved a little into how the Tesla Roadster will be assembled at the Lotus factory. We learned that cars are not produced in homogenous batches, but they can actually be interspersed with Elise production along with the Elise's other close relatives, the Exige and Europa S. So, you might walk along the assembly line and see Elise, Elise, Tesla, Europa, Tesla, Elise, Exige. . . .
It was also mentioned that there's a lot of manual assembly work involved. The person who made that comment had worked for several other auto makers, not only Lotus, so I thought I'd try to put his comment into perspective.
For most of Lotus's history they were barely in the car manufacturing business. Lotus's main business was engineering for other car companies, building race cars (which is where much of their engineering expertise came from), and producing a few sports cars for the public almost as an afterthought. If you look at Esprit production from the late 1970s when it was introduced up until 2004 when it was discontinued, they only produced a few hundred per year. By my count the highest production of Esprit was in 1988 when they made 1,058 cars. In 1991 it dipped to 125 cars. It was all done the traditional British way -- by overpaid union labor with plenty of work breaks and lots of fiddly hand-fitting.
The new factory at Hethel was built in 1999, and the first Elise rolled off the line in 2000. You won't find a lot of computerized robots building cars in the Lotus plant, it's still controlled by human beings. As of 2003 the plant was producing 3,500 cars per year, but it has a capacity of up to 10,000 per year by going to a double-shift system. So. . . They've just about multiplied their production capacity by ten with this new factory. For Lotus it's nothing to sneeze at.
By way of comparison, Honda has just recently announced plans to build a car factory in Japan with production capacity of 200,000 cars per year -- and it also manufactures engines for the cars, unlike Lotus who sourced most of their engines from Rover and Toyota. You can understand how somebody coming from these big car makers would look at the Lotus factory and remark on how little automation there is.
So, what are Lotus doing with all this newfound production capacity? The Elise was a hit in the USA, with lots of pent-up demand, cars were selling above sticker price, there were waiting lists. . . for a while, up through about last summer. Since then there's anecdotal evidence suggesting that the pent-up demand has been filled and sales have slumped. Last time I went to my local Lotus dealer (in Austin) they had Elises crammed into every nook of their showroom, there wasn't much room to move around. More recently Lotus started a program putting cars into rental companies. It suggests to me that Elises are no longer moving the way they did at first -- or the way Lotus hoped they would. To make matters worse, the new Europa S doesn't seem to be generating much buzz. (It hasn't been introduced in the USA yet.)
Here in the last week there was an announcement that Lotus is cutting 200 jobs at the Hethel factory. From the news report, "Group Lotus said it needed to cut its manufacturing workforce because of a slowdown in the US - the company's biggest market." Also reported, "The car-maker also revealed its new flagship super-car which will replace the Esprit will be delayed by more than a year and will now be unveiled in December 2009."
From Mike Kimberly, Group Lotus chief executive: "We have some opportunities ahead of us and some already underway but we have to tighten our belts in the short term as we drive to stimulate sales in the depressed US market."
Ouch! I'm far from happy to see Lotus doing poorly -- and the guys waiting on the new Esprit will be particularly disappointed. Some dealers had just begun waiting lists for it. I guess we should say delaying it is better than killing it completely. Getting more on-topic, we can rest assured Lotus will have plenty of production capacity to spare for assembling Tesla Roadsters. If Tesla decide, for any reason, to ramp up production more than they had planned, Lotus won't be the bottleneck holding them back.