Elon Musk arrives as Tesla opens German ‘gigafactory’ to the public

After Tesla founder Elon Musk proposed to build the electric carmaker’s first European “gigausine” in a forest outside Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed it as proof of “how it goes. can be achieved in a short time ”in the former communist east of Germany.

Almost two years later, environmental protests and bureaucratic battles thwarted Tesla CEO’s hopes of shaking up the German auto industry, delaying the grand opening for several months and leaving Musk to advocate for an “active process” to speed up. these tasks.

Still, there was a carnival vibe as the public got a peek inside the factory last weekend as part of a “county fair” aimed at engaging locals. – with 9,000 people entertained by street performers, balloon performers and food trucks offering everything from empanadas to currywurst.

But away from the Ferris wheel and giant bumper cars, there was glaring evidence of Tesla’s struggle to match its record-breaking 2019 feat of building its entire Shanghai giga-factory in just 168 days.

The empty halls where the assembly lines will sit have been offset by roaring red and yellow robots, their mechanical movements sometimes accompanied by the pulsating techno music of a nearby DJ. Strategically placed LED lighting and video installations filled other gaps, such as the half-finished paint shop.

Other areas, such as the innovative molding section, were devoid of life except for the handful of staff in signature black jackets accompanying visitors. Signs promoting the economic benefits the multibillion-dollar factory would bring to Brandenburg, one of Germany’s poorest states, were important.

The factory open day had something of a carnival atmosphere © Clemens Bilan / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Although Tesla has said it prioritizes locals when it comes to handing out tickets, the Financial Times met enthusiasts who had traveled from Greece, Norway, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the rest of the world. ‘Austria for the event.

For many, the highlight of the fair was the appearance of Musk himself, who came in a private jet to tell the enthusiastic crowd he would create “12,000 jobs, maybe more.”

“In fact, I’m a little worried that we won’t be able to hire enough people,” he admitted. “We really need great talent to come here from all over Europe – or anywhere – and help us create the new future.”

His concern was shared by some of those who had come to see the new plant, and how it compared to the dozens run by traditional German automakers.

“I don’t know where he will find skilled workers,” said Michael Thomas, who worked for decades at the Daimler factory in Stuttgart until his retirement. He wondered aloud if Musk was going to “poach them in other companies or train them himself, following the apprenticeship system in Germany.”

Tesla, the world’s most valued automaker, has pledged to establish 10 degree programs and become the state’s largest learning employer.

But such assurances have done little to calm the powerful German unions, which have repeatedly warned Musk not to bypass the country’s traditional system of co-determination, in which workers are represented at the council level. administration.

Robots work on a Tesla Model Y in a factory production hall

Robots work on a Tesla Model Y in a factory production hall © Patrick Pleul / dpa-Zentralbild / dpa

“Tesla has to comply with environmental laws, building codes and, of course, labor and union laws,” said Birgit Dietze, head of the Brandenburg branch for IG Metall, Germany’s largest union, recently. . Others have voiced concerns over hiring the company in Poland, which critics say could cut wages at Volkswagen and BMW.

Equipment for the new plant has been installed under provisional licenses, with the builder awaiting approval from local authorities.

Despite start-up issues, Musk told the crowd, the plant would start manufacturing in “November or December,” about six months late, before adding that it was the “easy part.” . . the hardest part is to achieve volume production ”.

After a disappointing 2020, Tesla’s fortunes in Western Europe improved in the last quarter, according to analyst Matthias Schmidt, with the company having delivered a record 45,900 cars in the three months ending in late September.

Official Austrian data showed that almost all Tesla sold in the country “came from Chinese production lines,” Schmidt said, highlighting the need for the German factory to go online.

Neither Tesla nor Musk responded to an invitation from the FT to comment.

When it comes to its European manufacturing plans, the company was typically bold. Tesla would “produce as many electric cars here as those sold in the EU last year,” the company insisted on signs, which would translate into a body roll off the production line roughly every 45 seconds.

Yet although body shop elements, stamping and molding processes were in place, the halls that will house the final production lines of the vehicles contained almost no equipment except for a few machines. to assemble and install the seats.

“There are a lot of empty spaces. It was more about the spectacle, ”said Hubert, a 32-year-old local. Another visitor from Berlin praised Tesla for “being very transparent” in opening the plant to foreigners.

Thomas, the retired Daimler veteran, said there was “nothing so new” on the bill, but given that the German auto industry was little based in Brandenburg, “it is really very good for the region ”.

Graffiti scrawled on a factory wall echoed the sentiment: “Wunderbar, Elon!

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