What I learned about Engineering from Elon Musk and the Fluffer Machine

During an investor conference call earlier this year, electric car company Tesla shared insights into assembly line optimizations. One stand out story involves the fluffer machine.

Edited Transcript of TSLA earnings conference call or presentation 2-May-18

“Like so we had fluffer bot, which was really an incredibly difficult machine to make work. Machines are not good at picking up pieces of fluff, okay. Human hands are way better at doing that. And so we had a super complicated machine using a vision system to try to put a piece of fluff on the battery pack. That same — and one of the questions asked was, “Do we actually need that?” So we tested a car with and without and found that there was no change in the noise volume in the cabin, so we actually had a part that was unnecessary that was — of course, the line kept breaking down because fluffer bot would frequently just fail to pick up the fluff or put it in like a random location. So that was one of the silliest things I found.”

So, they had this crazy complicated fluff machine. And a bunch of really smart people spent days trying to make it work. But no one, at least initially, questioned whether the machine was needed at all.

When the question was finally raised, the engineers challenged their assumptions, tested the theory. And they concluded the whole step of the process was unnecessary.

They scrapped the step, and the machine. Avoided getting stuck in the sunk cost fallacy. And moved on without regret.

The Lesson

Optimizing steps in your routine matters less than removing unecessary steps. Don’t waste your time over-optimizing activities you can stop doing altogether.

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