This blog is part of a series showcasing CU Engineering students’ summer experiences in engineering: internships, research, study abroad and more.
In the summer of 2018 I worked as a robotics and controls intern at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California. Just minutes from the heart of Silicon Valley, the Tesla factory offered priceless insights into one of the most controversial startups of today.
I worked in the Body in White Department (BIW), where the frame of the car is welded together from parts that are stamped from sheets of metal. The majority of the body shop is autonomous, so each car progresses through the line controlled by thousands of networked computers and logic controllers. BIW is where the bodies for Model S, Model X, and Model 3 are made. I was lucky enough to have a friend who worked in a different department at Tesla who directed me to the BIW team as a good fit for me.
My team was the equipment engineering team, which facilitates the changes and improvements necessary to increase safety and maximize the shop's output of bodies. When you see headlines like "Tesla Production Reaches Milestone 7,000 Cars Per Week,” those achievements are in large part thanks to the amazing hard work from our team.
My specific roles changed daily, but I will give a few examples of projects I worked on. Throughout my internship, I was tasked as a programmable logic controller (PLC) support engineer. PLCs are the computers that control every robot, welder, safety system and more in the factory. With thousands of logic routines in each, they make sure that the lines remain in sequence and that all human production associates stay safe. With so many individual controllers, there are literally billions of ways that they could become out of sequence, so it was our job to diagnose the issues and configure the lines so the PLCs were satisfied. Our radios would alert us to calls for PLC support dozens of times daily, often delaying more long-term projects; however, maintaining the lines running takes priority over everything.
In addition to PLC support, I installed safety systems and power disconnects and made changes to the HumanMachine Interfaces (where engineers can control and monitor the lines) to track downtime. I also rebuilt robot CPUs, as many machines on the S line were nearing their 40,000-hour lifetime and required maintenance.
I even spent a few weeks in the Stamping Department, working to overhaul their robot backup systems. By the end of my internship, I was not only a PLC support engineer but an IT technician, a robot programmer and the intern that every senior engineer could get to crawl through piles of weld slag and/or hydraulic fluid to route wires (not every part of the job was glamorous).
In general, I gained a lot of unexpected insights into Tesla and the culture of a startup that I wouldn't have expected. The rumors about Elon Musk working on the line himself are true, and even the ones about him sleeping on the factory floor. I once walked to get coffee and realized he was asleep under a desk less than five feet from me. Seeing the CEO living at work for days on end when he has the means to be anywhere in the world was quite motivating to us all, and seeing him personally making changes and improvements to the line was surreal.
While sleeping under a desk may be extreme, all the engineers and I were no stranger to hard work. We were never forced to work excessive hours, but everyone's genuine passion for the work and for the mission drove us late many nights. I personally worked a few 80-hour weeks before HR started limiting my overtime, and several full-time engineers I worked with completed 100+ hour weeks. These times were hard but also undeniably fun.
Overall, I will miss Tesla more than I ever would have imagined at the start. My team was loving and incredibly smart, and I learned so much about teamwork that I can't wait to apply elsewhere.
Tesla was more than building cars; it was a group of thousands of people all passionate about accelerating the world's transition to sustainable energy, as Tesla's mission statement describes. While I am secure in the notion that I made a difference, I cannot wait to continue to contribute to this cause across all industries.
Have any questions about Tesla, Elon Musk, or why an aerospace student got a job at a car company? Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to chat!
Cam Humphreys from San Francisco, California, is a sophomore in aerospace engineering and a participant in CU Boulder's Silicon Valley Innovation Interns program.