No cameras were permitted at the media tours conducted last week at the Tesla factory at RiverBend. Maybe the company was sending a message after all the politicians who used the plant’s exterior for photo opportunities in recent months, primarily Republicans painting the project as a boondoggle upon which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo invested $750 million in taxpayer funds as part of the Buffalo Billion.
The elections are over and the cameras put away. What the Tesla tour last week showed was neither the stuff of scare headlines nor cause for a ticker-tape parade. But the company is making steady progress in getting its South Buffalo gigafactory ready to go into mass production of solar roofing tiles.
The number of people employed at the plant is now 800, split evenly between Tesla and Panasonic. That means the company is about 55 percent of the way to fulfilling its pledge to create 1,460 jobs at the factory by April 2020. They have 17 months to bring on the other 660 employees, a reachable target.
In exchange for the state spending the money to build the plant, Tesla made a commitment to bring 5,000 jobs to New York within 10 years. As a story in The News pointed out, the company could face a penalty of as much as $41.2 million for each year it falls short. That’s not pocket change and Tesla does not take it lightly.
The gigafactory appears to be modeling what the future of manufacturing looks like. It operates around the clock, with employees working for three days on, four days off. And there are robots stationed throughout.
There’s no consensus on what automation will ultimately mean to the American economy in terms of jobs lost or gained, but robots remove some of the drudgery of factory work by taking over some repetitive tasks.
Bak USA, the Buffalo maker of computer tablets and laptops that ceased operations on Nov. 1, employed so-called cobots in its factory, robots that share work with humans. One cobot could screw in thousands of screws per day.
Tesla’s solar energy business has taken hits from both the supply and demand side.
The solar roof has been held back by production delays. The company had said as recently as August that it would ramp up solar roof production later this year, but now says that will happen early next year. To critics who demand to see quarterly progress that sounds like moving the goal posts, but it’s also reality in the startup business. Things happen and usually the companies that succeed are those that adapt best.
There is legitimate concern about softening consumer demand. Sales of conventional rooftop solar installations saw a decline through the first three quarters of this year, compared with a year ago.
Tesla is counting on wider appear for its tiles, which look like conventional roof shingles but contain solar cells. The electronic components sit between glass panels in what’s called a solar sandwich. It means that a house outfitted with solar tiles has no drop-off in curb appeal.
We may be months away from the gigafactory fulfilling its promised potential, but demand for renewable energy sources in the U.S. is only going to increase. Buffalo and Tesla are poised to ride that wave.