Students from the automotive technology program at Columbia College who toured parts of Tesla’s 5.3-million-square-foot electric vehicle factory and offices in Fremont last Friday shared their perspectives this week on advanced robotics they saw on assembly lines, as well as how the innovations they witnessed are motivating them in their career paths in a changing industry.
Dominic Byrne, 18, of Cedar Ridge, a Summerville High graduate with the Class of 2021, said the manufacturing plant itself was immense, with racks of unpainted parts, “cool robotic arms lifting up platforms holding the unfinished vehicles,” and unfinished dashboard consoles waiting to be installed.
“My favorite part of the tour were the autonomous machines moving around the factory with car parts on top of them,” Byrne said Wednesday in a phone interview. “From point A to point B, they were moving on black magnetized lines. The robots were cooler than the cars, really cool ingenious stuff, giant robots, very sophisticated.”
Byrne said he is focused on completing his automotive associate’s degree at Columbia and use that to go to work and earn more money to continue to expand his horizon in higher education, perhaps in diesel technology studies or in the medical field.
Eric Taylor, 41, of Sonora, said he is taking all the automotive program classes at Columbia College, and the Friday tour at the Tesla plant in Fremont was his first up-close look at anything like it. They started around 11 a.m. Friday and rode in a tram, like a train on wheels, in some of the largest buildings anyone could ever remember being inside.
“It was an awesome experience,” Taylor said. “They use so much robotics on the assembly lines. Looked like they were running three or four different lines. It was my first time in an automotive manufacturing plant. They had this crushing machine seven stories tall that could create millions of tons of crushing force. They use it to stamp metal parts. At the end, they were showing us how they are going to make big rig trucks. Big like diesels, but it’s electric.”
Taylor said his goals include eventually opening his own automotive shop, so he’s also taking business classes. He hopes to finish at Columbia and transfer to University of California, Sacramento, to focus on more business studies.
“I took some electronics classes here at Columbia,” Taylor said. “In the future, I hope to take more computer classes. I’m preparing for working on more electrical components and eventually electric automobiles, but even the ones that aren’t electric, almost every system in cars now has electrical or computer components.”
Gage Galvez, 18, another 2021 graduate of Summerville High, was also impressed with all the robotics he saw at work in the Tesla plant in Fremont.
“It was cool how they had all this robotic equipment, to lift and move entire car chassis, car bodies,” Galvez said Wednesday. “They were electric robots. We’re looking at jobs in this field, and it was cool to see the latest innovations and how that works. We were driving on these roads in the assembly buildings. It was about 16 football fields big, a guide said, and we didn’t even see the entire place.”
Galvez said he was surprised by just how automated the whole process was and appeared to be. He said he’s taking automotive classes so he can work on vehicles in personal time, and he’s still exploring his options in higher education.
“How electrical vehicles work, it’s interesting the new technology,” he said.
Mitchell Davis, 18, of Twain Harte, also of Summerville’s class of 2021, said he is working on the side while he’s in Columbia’s automotive program. He shared some of the background he learned last Friday.
“Each of their plants has a specialized focus, and this one at Fremont is their original plant, one of the first factories they opened,” Davis said. “I think the one in Texas is where they build the semis, the electric big rig trucks. There were about 20 of us on this tram.”
Davis said he and his classmates saw what was described as one of the largest — or the largest — hydraulic press in North America, used to press body parts and other parts.
“I think it was worth about $50 million for the press,” Davis said. “Half of it was underground, but they said overall it was about seven stories tall, with about 30 feet above ground, and it was still huge, about the size of a building.”
It seemed like one massive building, Davis said, and it was eye-opening to see how interconnected the manufacturing process is and all the single steps they take to make a vehicle.
“They had these robotic arms and a lot of smaller robots,” Davis said. “The huge arms could pick up the unfinished vehicle and move it from one assembly line to another. It was intriguing to learn more about electric cars, but it was kind of scary to see how complex the amount of electrical and computer components go into these things. If you’re used to working on cars from the 1970s, it’s incredible how advanced these things are.”
Erik Andal, who runs the automotive technology program at Columbia College, teaches three to four classes a semester, including Automotive Service Excellence standards on engines, engine performance, brakes, state smog check technician courses, as well as entrepreneurial law.
“In my 25 years at Columbia College, this field trip was no doubt the most substantial,” Andal said. “Because of the experience the students got out of it and what we all saw, one of the most modern and innovative automotive assembly plants in the United States.”
Andal emphasized getting invited for a tour at Tesla is “extremely rare, like a golden ticket from the Willy Wonka movie,” and it’s a privilege normally reserved for new Tesla employees and new owners of Tesla vehicles.
“The students had a very unique opportunity to gain insight on manufacturing,” Andal said. “We were fortunate and we’re very grateful to our hosts. For me, personally, I’m not sure if I’m more awed by the sheer size of the plant or all the new technology we saw on Friday.”
Andal said he had an invitation to tour a Tesla factory as a participant in an automotive instructors conference about a dozen years ago, but he had to cancel. He never got another chance until he met Dr. Lena Tran, the new president of Columbia College.
Tran had contacts at Tesla and got the tour lined up for Andal and his students.
“She came from Evergreen College and San Jose City College in San Jose, where she was in charge of workforce development industry partnerships including Tesla,” Andal said. “She’s like the perfect college president for me.”
Tran started at Columbia College on March 7 and used to be vice-president of strategic partnerships and workforce innovation for more than four years at San Jose City College. Before that, she ran the automotive program at Evergreen Valley College, a sister college to San Jose CC.
“As dean at Evergreen Valley College and running the automotive program, in 2014, I called up Tesla and spoke to somebody in Fremont,” Tran said Wednesday in a phone interview. “We started a conversation with Tesla to start an electric vehicle program at Evergreen Valley College — a Tesla-specific avenue of classes for electric vehicle technicians.”
Evergreen Valley College is now a Tesla-designated training facility, and at least five Evergreen students were hired to work at Tesla while she was still at Evergreen Valley College.
Tran got her first Tesla factory tour last Friday with Columbia’s automotive tech students and Andal, she said. Dave Thoeny, executive director of Mother Lode Job Training in Sonora, also went on the tour with Columbia College participants, she added.
“The visit resonated with me and I couldn’t let it go,” Tran said. “Our students and faculty shared that, ‘If we can visit Tesla, it would be like going to White House.’ Even though I haven’t worked with Tesla for the last five years, I wanted my students to know that all are reachable — be it Tesla, Google, or Facebook. We are only two-and-a-half hours from Silicon Valley. It’s possible.”