October 6th, 2016 — At 6:30 am, just as the sun was beginning to peek through the morning mist, a group of SEC officers had already begun gathering within the side parking lot of Ray’s Grill, occupying themselves by exchanging introductions and engaging in casual small talk. Going around the circle, the group was quite diverse with students ranging from freshman to PhD candidates, law students to material science engineering majors. By the time the last few members reached the designated meeting spot, the remaining traces of sleepiness had dissipated from the group and was subsequently replaced by a buzz of anticipation and excitement. This was no ordinary day, after all. A week or so prior, the co-president of SEC, Rahul Kini, had dropped the announcement that the fifteen of us, now awaiting his signal to set off on our journey, were among the lucky few allowed to have an exclusive tour of Tesla Giga factory 1 out in Nevada. To put our great fortune into perspective, only a handful of Tesla employees are given leave to even visit Gigafactory 1, much less explore around inside of it. Not taking this opportunity for granted, we pushed aside all thoughts of non-recorded lectures, PIs, and upcoming assignment deadlines to witness one of the greatest milestones in the history of electric vehicles in the making. So, off we went.
The trip was to be a day long affair; according to Rahul’s meticulous schedule, the one-way drive to Gigafactory 1 would take at least four hours, notwithstanding the early morning rush hour. That said, those four hours flew by fast as our four carpooling cars made their way up north past San Francisco and Sacramento before crossing eastward towards Reno. In Reno, we stopped for a quick lunch break before completing the last half hour leg of the trek to 1 Electric Way Avenue in Sparks (which coincidentally is only 35 minutes from Sun Valley for those of you appreciating the energy theme naming scheme). When we arrived on site, the time was just shy of 2:30 pm and true to expectations the sun’s rays radiated over our dusty surroundings unobstructed; the hills that enclosed the patch of land offered little shade. Gigafactory 1 itself, though still under construction, was imposing beyond imagination as its large structure spanned over nearly all the land in sight.
After going through the final security checks, we were greeted by our tour guide, Adam Kirby, a self-claimed Tesla salesman turned “professional show off”. Our first stop of the tour was the lobby where Adam directed our attention to the two scale models of Gigafactory 1, one that presented a cross-section of the entire building with sample production lines laid out floor by floor and the other presented the building and its auxiliary facilities set up on Tesla’s five sq. mile land purchase. Adam quickly began rattling off the requisite fun facts about Gigafactory 1’s conception, construction, and expected final dimensions. For example, upon completion Gigafactory 1 will be the largest building in the world by land foot print (and the second largest building in the world by volume after The Boeing Everret Factory). According to Adam, the Tesla architects, looking far out into the long term, essentially bought as much land as they could while it was still available — making Gigafactory 1’s campus rather reminiscent, he jokingly noted, of the Lion King scene in which Mufasa informs Simba, “Everything the light touches is our kingdom”.
From the lobby onwards we quickly swept past the open employee work stations and onto the production floors. Unlike the Tesla Factory in Fremont which will be manufacturing and shipping Tesla’s finished fleet of electric vehicles, Gigafactory 1 was built to produce all of Tesla’s batteries for those vehicles as well Powerpacks and Powerwalls for stationary energy storage. Though a few manufacturing processes remain proprietary, a majority of the information on Tesla’s products have been made open source. In addition to Tesla’s own workspaces, we also caught glimpses of the workspaces that will be taken up by Panasonic and some of Tesla’s other strategic partners. In order to streamline their battery production pace as efficiently as possible, Tesla boasts a vertically integrated production line in which all of its batteries’ associated manufacturing steps will be entirely housed within Gigafactory 1. Among the last stops Adam guided us to was the rooftop of the factory where the arms of construction cranes and several scenic hills set just the right backdrop for taking selfies and a SEC group photo op (see the picture adjoined to this article). Before we returned to the lobby and bid goodbye to Gigafactory 1, Adam brought us to the final destination of the tour, a workspace where sat the stripped chassis of a Tesla Model S. We spent quite some time examining the chassis’ dual front and rear engines and the two lines comprised of four battery packs each that extended down its center. Right before us was the physical culmination of everything that Tesla stood for and what the entire Gigafactory was ultimately built to support. In that moment, it was impossible not to feel the weight of the effort and dedication that had been used to forge each individual component and made a fitting end for the tour.
With the tour over at 4:00 pm, the fifteen of us sauntered over to our cars, parked not too far from Gigafactory 1. Thoroughly satisfied by the tour, especially with Adam’s excellent guidance, we all made our separate ways back to campus, some hurrying to catch up to reality and work left piling up and others to grab dinner. Overall, the trip going back and forth between Stanford and Reno lasted upwards of fourteen hours or in other words a day well spent.
Written by Victoria Mao