Elon Musk jets in as Tesla opens German ‘gigafactory’ to the public

After Tesla founder Elon Musk proposed building the electric carmaker’s first European “gigafactory” in a forest outside Berlin, chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed it as proof of “how things can be achieved in a short time” in Germany’s former communist east.

Almost two years on, environmental protests and bureaucratic battles have frustrated the Tesla chief executive’s hopes to shake up Germany’s staid auto industry, delaying the grand opening by several months and leaving Musk pleading for an “active process” to speed up such tasks.

Yet there was a carnival atmosphere as the public was given a sneak peek inside the factory last weekend as part of a “county fair” aimed at engaging locals — with 9,000 people entertained by street performers, balloon artists and food trucks offering everything from empanadas to currywurst.

But away from the giant Ferris wheel and dodgem cars, there was stark evidence of Tesla’s struggle to match its record-breaking feat from 2019 of building its entire Shanghai gigafactory in just 168 days.

Empty halls where assembly lines will sit were compensated for with whirring red and yellow robots, their mechanical movements occasionally accompanied by pulsating techno music from a nearby DJ. Strategically placed LED lighting and video installations plugged other gaps, such as in the half-finished paint shop.

Other areas, such as the innovative casting section, were devoid of life, save for the handful of staff clad in branded black jackets shepherding visitors. Placards promoting the economic benefits that the multibillion-dollar plant would bring to Brandenburg, one of Germany’s poorer states, were prominent.

The factory open day had something of a carnival atmosphere © Clemens Bilan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Although Tesla said it prioritised locals when it came to giving out tickets, the Financial Times met enthusiasts who had travelled from Greece, Norway, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Austria for the event.

For many, the highlight of the fair was an appearance from Musk himself, who came by private jet to tell the enthusiastic crowd that he would create “12,000 jobs, maybe more”.

“In fact, I’m a little worried we won’t be able to hire enough people,” he admitted. “We really need great talent to come here from around Europe — or anywhere — and help us create the new future.”

His concern was matched by some of those who had come to see the new plant, and how it compared with the dozens run by Germany’s traditional carmakers.

“I don’t know where he’ll get qualified workers,” said Michael Thomas, who worked at Daimler’s factory in Stuttgart for decades until he retired. He wondered aloud whether Musk would “poach them from other companies or train them himself, following the apprenticeship system in Germany”.

Tesla, the world’s most valuable car company, has pledged to establish 10 study programmes and become the largest apprenticeship employer in the state.

But such assurances have done little to calm Germany’s powerful trade unions, who have repeatedly warned Musk not to circumvent the country’s traditional co-determination system, in which workers are represented at boardroom level.

Robots work on a Tesla Model Y at a production hall at the factory
Robots work on a Tesla Model Y at a production hall at the factory © Patrick Pleul/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa

“Tesla must comply with environmental laws, building codes and, of course, labour and union laws,” Birgit Dietze, head of the Brandenburg branch for IG Metall, Germany’s largest union, said recently. Others have raised concerns about the company recruiting from Poland, which critics say could undercut salaries at the likes of Volkswagen and BMW.

Equipment at the new factory has been installed under provisional licences, as the manufacturer waits for local authority approval.

Despite teething troubles, Musk told the crowd, the facility would begin manufacturing in “November or December”, about six months behind schedule, before adding that this was the “easy part . . . the hard part is reaching volume production”.

After a disappointing 2020, Tesla’s fortunes in western Europe improved in the last quarter, according to analyst Matthias Schmidt, with the company delivering a record 45,900 cars in the three months to the end of September.

Official Austrian data showed that almost all Teslas sold in the country “came from Chinese production lines”, according to Schmidt, highlighting the need for the German plant to come online.

Neither Tesla nor Musk responded to an FT invitation for comment.

When it came to its European manufacturing plans, the company was characteristically bold. Tesla would “produce as many electric cars here as were sold in the EU last year”, the company insisted on placards, which would roughly translate to a car body rolling off the production line every 45 seconds.

Yet although elements of the body shop, stamping and casting processes were in place, the halls that will house the final vehicle production lines contained almost no equipment, save for a few machines to assemble and install seats.

“There’s a lot of empty spaces. It was more about the show,” said Hubert, a 32-year-old local. Another visitor from Berlin praised Tesla for “showing a lot of transparency” by opening the factory to outsiders.

Thomas, the retired Daimler veteran, said there was “nothing that new” on show, but given how little of Germany’s car industry was based in Brandenburg “it’s definitely very good for the area”.

Graffiti scribbled on a wall of the factory echoed the sentiment: “Wunderbar, Elon!”

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