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NUMMI, five years later: Inside Tesla

Raja Shah
Tesla's special KUKA robots can do four different tasks.

This is Part 3 of a three-part series looking at what’s happened in the five years since the NUMMI auto plant closed. Read Part 1 and Part 2, or (we recommend) listen to the whole radio show!

Before Maryo Mendez found that auto shop job at Sears, he actually dropped his resume off at the building where he used to work. NUMMI wasn’t there anymore, of course, but there were still cars being made inside. Electric cars.

Only a few months after NUMMI shut down, Tesla Motors snatched up the space. The 5.5 million square foot building was valued at $1.3 billion, but because it was the recession, Tesla bought it for just $42 million. When the rest of the auto industry was going bankrupt, Tesla began to thrive, and it gave former NUMMI workers like Mendez a tiny bit of hope.

“I concentrated on [Tesla] first. I got some leads from some people that were working in there,” Mendez says. But he had no luck. He thinks it was because of his age.

“They wouldn’t hire anyone over 50, so it was getting even harder to get in there, even when I had the perfect resume that the unemployment people helped me make.”

The truth is that when Tesla moved into NUMMI it was still a really small startup. In 2012, the company was only making five cars a week, and didn’t need that many employees. But it never released the numbers.

“The company has said informally it’s been hundreds, but what exactly does that mean? 200 or 500?” says Harley Shaiken, a U.C. Berkeley professor who studies labor and the global economy.

“A lot of NUMMI workers who would’ve brought valuable skills, for whatever reason, didn't wind up at Tesla,” he adds.

Today, Tesla has thousands of employees. They won’t say exactly how many -- or how many used to work at NUMMI. Shaiken says that’s a shame.

“This was one of the most well-known and successful automobile factories in the world. It pioneered labor management cooperation in important ways in the United States.”

It was definitely revolutionary. NUMMI prided itself on making cars in an efficient, productive way. But Tesla says it’s revolutionary too: changing the future of both auto manufacturing and driving.

Inside the Tesla factory

When I arrive at Tesla, I meet up with communications staffer Alexis Georgeson, climb into a golf cart, and start zipping around the factory, watching cars in every stage of the assembly process. First stop is the aluminum coil yard.

“So Model S starts with a giant roll of  aluminum,” she says. “Each one of these rolls weighs about 20,000 pounds and they come into the factory, and then we unroll the sheets.”

At NUMMI, this is how cars would start out too, as giant rolls of metal. Those large sheets of aluminum are then stamped. Georgeson shows me this, too.

When Tesla moved in, they did some redecorating. They put in skylights, painted the floors bright white, and installed living plant walls. Some of the equipment in the factory came from NUMMI, and if you look closely enough you can see some remnants of the old line.

Credit Raja Shah
Tesla did some redecorating when they moved into the plant. They painted the floors bright white, and they bought lots of red robots.

Other machines are new to the space. Tesla bought a lot of high tech-robots, and they’re all painted bright red -- Tesla colors.

Georgeson stops the golf cart to show me robots that can do four different jobs at once.

Meeting the robots

The robots look lifelike, and they remind me of dinosaurs. As a car rolls down the line, the robots cock their heads all at once and then dive in toward the car, quickly screwing in bolts, welding, and drilling. Then they pull back and wait for the next car.

For the whole first hour of the tour, I was waiting to be introduced to a worker. I remembered Sara Rogers, the NUMMI tour guide, telling me about ‘Bob’ who puts on tires, ‘Jim’ who puts on the doors.

“Xavier actually lifts Model S right when it’s coming from the paint shop, and sets it down on the trim line,” Georgeson tells me. And I get my hopes up.

But when when we finally meet him, I see that Xavier isn’t a person. He’s a robot, so strong that he can lift two-ton newly-assembled cars high into the air.

“They're the largest robots in the world,” Georgeson tells me. “They all have names based on Marvel comic characters, like Wolverine, Iceman, Thunderbird, Cyclops.”

Apparently Elon Musk, Tesla’s creator, is a hugeX-Men fan.

Credit Raja Shah
A brand new Tesla Model S rolls down the line.

Besides meeting a few of Tesla’s 200 robots, I didn’t meet anyone else on the tour. But Georgeson says the people are there, just doing different jobs. You can see evidence: vending machines full of earplugs and goggles, and popcorn makers stationed around the factory floor. She says these workers are excited about Tesla. “Because they know that this product that they're making is really changing the world.”

At the height of NUMMI’s production, they were making more than 400,000 cars per year. Last year, Tesla built and distributed 33,000. But, they’re growing. This year they hoped to ramp up production to over 55,000, and that the entire electric car industry would grow with them.

Credit Raja Shah
Tesla hopes to revolutionize the way we drive cars. They are working to bring the cost of their rechargeable car batteries down to the point where no one has to rely on gas modes of transportation.

A healthy county

Even though Tesla’s vertically integrated -- meaning they make all their cupholders in house, instead of in outside factories -- their growth has been good for the county.

“It’s very good, unemployment is down to five percent it's lower than the state,” says Patti Castro, the director of the Alameda County Workforce Investment Board.  

“This area produces 30 percent of the state's output in terms of manufacturing, so it's all good. The sad thing is when I reflect on it, it's like well, there's fewer people doing it. You have to keep that in perspective, they don't need as many people, so you always want to know, ‘where people going to work?”

Economist Harley Shaiken has similar thoughts.

“I think that the automobile industry is an advanced industry, it is part of the 21st century, as Tesla has shown us,” he says.

But, he adds, the NUMMI closure also shows that you can’t always predict what’s going to work. Conventional wisdom says US auto plants closed because they couldn’t adapt to the modern world. NUMMI did adapt, but ultimately it still closed. Shaiken says that points to a bigger structural issue.

“Simply to close a plant like NUMMI, which was so successful for 25 years and was the symbol of what could be done, to close it for the narrowest the financial reasons...I think there’s something that's not right about that.”

Credit Angela Johnston
Sara Rogers looks through a book of letters kids wrote her after going on one of her tours.

Packing NUMMI into boxes

At this point, no one is really keeping track of what happened to the NUMMI workers. There are just anecdotes about where people are.

Sara Rogers, the former NUMMI tour guide, still keeps in touch with a lot of them. She also keeps her own pieces of NUMMI in big boxes stacked in her garage. She’s saved every note anyone has ever written her, and little artifacts from the factory, like a piece of paper that was pinned on the last car.

Rogers also owns a NUMMI car: a gold Toyota Tacoma.

Credit Angela Johnston
Sara Rogers poses next to her NUMMI-made Toyota Tacoma. She knows the birthday of her car, named "Goldie."

“I was gonna order a car, I couldn’t wait, I couldn’t wait, so I went out and I looked at a silver one, and I looked at a gold one,” she says. “And I got the gold one and of course her name is ‘Goldie.’”

And of course, she knows the car’s exact birthday. If you look on the inside drivers’ side panel you can see the manufacturing date.

“It was born, it left the company on June 16, 2001 at 9:43 p.m., so I wanted know who built it,” she says -- so she could go out on the line and thank them personally.

Jamie Hummer, Jason Mederios, Betty Jones, and Oscar Lemus, to name just a few.

This piece originally aired in June 2015. 

Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.