We were going to be driving through the SF area this past weekend, and I decided to visit the Tesla factory. A couple of emails to Tim McCann later, the tour was on. So on Friday, we arrived to the gates of the Fremont factory and checked in.
In short, the experience is fantastic, and I heartily recommend it to everybody, but don't hold your expectations too high. You probably won't see anything that you can't see in the National Geographics video.
The building is impressively massive from the outside, but the inside feels almost cramped. Everything is very tightly packed, and more space is taken by the already assembled bodies and the parts storage than the whole of the assembly line. The vast unused expanses must exist somewhere, but the tour doesn't cover them. The robot arms, while unmistakably red and impressive, are mostly hidden behind plastic curtains (makes sense with all the arc welding), and there's a lot of human involvement on all stages of production. One of my favourite moments of the tour happened when the guide said something to the effect of "the robot arms are fully autonomous, can wield multiple instruments, and are capable of precision of up to 0.1 mm". At that precise moment the tram was passing a worker who was attaching something to the business end of a robot arm with pretty liberal application of a common hammer.
Gone, too, are the smart trolleys that featured in the video. The tram passed a parking lot with several of those, and the guide mentioned that the new assembly lines are more efficient, and allow for holding patterns and whatnot. Well, maybe, but the smart trolleys were pretty symbolic, while the new lines look very traditional: there is a conveyor in the floor with pylons to hold the partially assembled cars. The sub-components like the dash or the drive-train are built by hand at what can best be described as desks. They may be XXI-century desks in some respect, I admit, but they look fairly traditional when you are moving along the row of them in a tram at 5 mph, trying to see as much as you can on all sides.
One of the dominating features of the factory is the supply of the unpainted Model S bodies. These are everywhere, arranged in what seems like every free bit of floor space capable of holding one. The visual stream when riding the train goes like: Model S body, office, 3 Model S bodies, sub-assembly line, another body, cafeteria, large room of bodies (20-30 of them), corridor, more bodies... Naturally, the visitors at this point have little to no chance to find out anything about the Model X, even if it assembled somewhere in the factory. Likewise, the tour doesn't seem to cover the battery assembly area or the indoor test track.
The start/finish area of the tour has a mini-museum housing the Roadster and Model S prototypes. It might be different for everyone, but I personally find the prototype body way sexier than the final product, especially the side indicators:
Photo not taken by me, but it shows the different shape and the original awesome-looking blinkers.
To be honest, I think I've been severely spoiled by the "Megafactories" video. The factory in the NG video looks futuristic and advanced, you see these brightly-lit spaces where robots take rolls of aluminium and massage them into the gorgeous cars with inhuman precision. The actual process is, let's say, a bit more down-to-earth. Still very much worth it.