Tesla CEO Elon Musk said last week the company has run out of space at its Fremont, Calif., plant and is looking to build a second factory.
"There's no room at Fremont," Musk said. "It's bursting at the seams."
But that statement left plenty of industry watchers scratching their heads.
Tesla's Fremont plant is the old New United Motor Manufacturing plant, otherwise known as NUMMI. The joint operation between General Motors and Toyota began in 1984 and was intended to help the Japanese automaker learn about doing business in America and teach GM the principles of lean manufacturing.
The plant, 32 miles from Tesla's headquarters in Palo Alto, is large enough to handle around 500,000 vehicles a year in 5.3 million square feet of office and manufacturing space. Tesla, meanwhile, produces about a fifth of the plant's capacity.
So what gives? Why is the electric-vehicle manufacturer running out of room?
It's because in this temple of lean manufacturing, Tesla uses far more workers than NUMMI employed to build far fewer cars. In 1985, its first full year of production, NUMMI had 2,470 employees and produced 64,764 vehicles — about 26 vehicles per worker per year. By 1997, it had 4,844 workers and produced 357,809 vehicles — about 74 vehicles per worker per year.
Tesla, on the other hand, had between 6,000 and 10,000 workers in 2016 and manufactured 83,922 vehicles. That puts its vehicle-per-worker number between 8 and 14, about one-seventh the efficiency of NUMMI at its peak.
"The number of people Musk's got in there has a great deal to do with why he doesn't make money building vehicles," said automotive manufacturing consultant Michael Tracy of Agile Group in Howell, Mich. "Toyota's numbers reflect the number of people you expect to have if you were going to efficiently build vehicles for a profit."