Tesla reinvents carmaking with quiet breakthrough?

AUSTIN, Texas, Sept 14 (Reuters) – Tesla (TSLA.O) has, in a groundbreaking feat propelled by a confluence of innovations, unfurled a technological metamorphosis poised to revolutionize the landscape of electric vehicle manufacturing. Insights gleaned from five cognoscenti intimate that this breakthrough not only signifies a paradigm shift but also aligns with Elon Musk’s ambitious endeavour to halve production costs.

The genesis of this automotive alchemy lies in Tesla’s pioneering use of colossal presses, boasting clamping pressures ranging from 6,000 to 9,000 tons. These behemoth presses orchestrate a symphony of efficiency in the “gig casting” process, meticulously moulding the front and rear structures of the Model Y. The resultant reduction in production costs sends shockwaves through the industry, leaving competitors in a frenzied scramble to catch up.

Yet, Tesla, in its relentless pursuit of supremacy, is on the brink of another innovation milestone. Whispers from insiders suggest an imminent breakthrough that would enable the die-casting of nearly the entire intricate underbody of an electric vehicle in a singular, seamless piece. A departure from the conventional approach, where a labyrinth of about 400 parts comprises the underbody of a typical car.

This technological prowess forms the bedrock of Tesla’s unveiled “unboxed” manufacturing strategy, an architectural cornerstone articulated by Chief Executive Musk in March. This strategy serves as the linchpin, propelling Tesla toward the audacious goal of churning out tens of millions of affordable electric vehicles in the ensuing decade while maintaining a profitable trajectory.

Amid Tesla’s discourse on the unboxed model, speculation shrouds the precise composition and dimensions of the modular blocks. Terry Woychowski, president of U.S. engineering juggernaut Caresoft Global, opines that the potential gig casting of an EV underbody by Tesla could be a seismic disruptor in the realm of automotive design and manufacturing.

“It is an enabler on steroids. It has a huge implication for the industry, but it’s a very challenging task,” asserts Woychowski, a veteran with over three decades at U.S. automaker GM. He underscores the formidable nature of castings, especially those of larger and more intricate dimensions.

Insiders intimate that Tesla’s clandestine foray into avant-garde design and manufacturing methodologies could expedite the development cycle of a car from inception to fruition. While rivals languish in the protracted timeline of three to four years, Tesla could potentially birth a car from conceptualization to reality within an abbreviated timeframe of 18 to 24 months.

The crux of this clandestine venture revolves around the notion of a singular, colossal frame that amalgamates the front and rear sections with the central underbody housing the battery. This unified frame, if adopted, could find its place in Tesla’s forthcoming small EV, slated for a mid-decade launch with a tantalizing price point of $25,000.

However, the decision to forge ahead with the die-casting of the underbody in one seamless piece hangs in the balance. Sources intimate that Tesla’s deliberation on this matter may culminate this month, yet the final product remains susceptible to metamorphosis during the intricate design validation process.

The narrative takes an intriguing detour into the realm of 3D printing and industrial sand, unravelling the cloak of secrecy shrouding Tesla’s breakthrough. The heart of the matter lies in the colossal moulds designed and tested for mass production, with a pivotal role played by 3D printing and industrial sand.

Automakers, traditionally averse to casting ever-bigger structures, grapple with the “gigawatt dilemma.” The dichotomy between boosting efficiency and incurring exorbitant costs and inherent risks presents a formidable conundrum. Yet, Elon Musk’s visionary ardour propels Tesla to navigate these treacherous waters, seeking to cast the underbody in one cohesive piece.

The ingenious solution emerges from an alliance with firms adept at crafting test moulds from industrial sand, employing 3D printers as the conduits of creation. A digital design file begets a gradual layer-by-layer mold formation, capable of casting molten alloys. The cost-effectiveness of this process, specifically in the design validation phase, stands in stark contrast to the financial rigours associated with metal prototypes.

In this paradigm, Tesla enjoys the liberty of tweaking prototypes ad infinitum, swiftly generating new iterations in a matter of hours. Companies like Desktop Metal and its unit ExOne play pivotal roles in expediting this iterative process.

The sand casting methodology compresses the design validation cycle to a mere two to three months, a fraction of the six months to a year entailed by traditional metal mould prototypes. The hollow subframes, integral to the underbody’s weight-saving and crashworthiness, take shape within the same gig casting process, facilitated by sand cores strategically placed within the mould.

Yet, the journey to this manufacturing utopia is riddled with challenges. The idiosyncrasies of aluminium alloys in sand and metal moulds necessitate a bespoke solution. Tesla’s casting specialists orchestrate a symphony of innovation, formulating specialized alloys, fine-tuning the molten alloy cooling process, and implementing a post-production heat treatment.

As Tesla traverses the final frontier of perfectionizing the prototype mold, the stage is set for mass production with a final metal mold. The impending launch of Tesla’s small car, designed with a simplified underbody, provides the ideal canvas for casting an electric vehicle platform in one seamless piece.

The intricacies, however, extend to the type of gigapress that Tesla may employ for this endeavor. A pivotal decision awaits – whether to embrace a high-pressure gigapress, conducive to rapid production but incompatible with housing 3D printed sand cores, or opt for a slower alloy injection process that prioritizes quality and versatility.

The tantalizing conundrum encapsulates the essence of Tesla’s relentless pursuit of innovation and the intricate dance between efficiency and quality. As the curtain lifts on the future of automotive manufacturing, the narrative of Tesla’s groundbreaking advancements remains an ever-evolving saga, where each twist and turn unveils a new chapter in the annals of technological prowess.

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