DETROIT—Tesla has given the auto industry a steady stream of competitive shocks over the past decade. But one that has probably gone unnoticed by consumers has occurred in the decidedly unglamorous world of factory construction.
Tesla has been building its auto plants at jaw-dropping speed.
Case in point: Tesla Gigafactory Texas, its $1.1 billion assembly plant now under construction in Austin.
The site was chosen in July. Construction began immediately on the project, consisting of three parallel buildings totaling 4 million square feet. Barely two months later, Tesla estimated the plant would be substantially completed by May. CEO Elon Musk said in January he expected production to start by the end of this year.
Auto plants typically take twice that long to build from raw ground to consumer sales. Tesla's pace represents a new benchmark for U.S. auto makers, said Sandy Munro, a former Ford engineer who consults on manufacturing issues as CEO of Munro & Associates in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Munro, who has consulted with Tesla, said the young electric vehicle maker is not doing anything unusual at its Austin plant site—other than being hungry to get new capacity open for business. The Detroit 3 and others could construct plants at the same speed if they wanted, Munro contends.
"The difference is that Tesla is not bogged down by old practices and rulebooks on procedures and protocol," he said.
"Tesla is willing to just go in and get it done. If you're a career engineer at one of the traditional auto makers, you're probably not going to be rewarded for operating like that."
The Texas factory will produce Tesla's Cybertruck pickup, which is a new segment for the company; a semitruck, also new business; and the Model 3 and Model Y to serve markets in the Eastern U.S. Why Tesla needed to construct the plant on a highly compressed schedule is obvious to many in the business: It wants to get its products to market faster. It similarly fast-tracked an assembly plant in Berlin and also built a plant in Shanghai on a short schedule.
But Munro warns that even Tesla is in for some competition on getting new plant capacity online "when the Chinese finally enter the U.S. market."
Munro observes that auto makers from China already have demonstrated their construction speed on plants built there.
"The Chinese will put up a giant factory in what seems like weeks," said Munro, who has consulted with a number of Chinese manufacturers. "They have it worked out to an amazingly efficient system. ... Tesla actually seems slow by comparison."
Munro said the rest of the industry could mimic the building prowess of Tesla and the Chinese auto makers.
"But they're not really looking to shake things up," he said. "Other manufacturers are. The industry should watch out.
"The companies that come into the U.S. and are capable of moving fast are the ones who are going to gobble up market share."