Aristotle at the Gigafactory: Why Physics Is a Philosophy

On Friday, in Storey County, Nevada, a woman at Tesla’s Gigafactory inauguration hollered, “Beam me up, Elon!” Elon Musk, the electric car company’s chief executive officer, had just taken the stage along with J.B. Straubel, Tesla’s chief technical officer. “Okay, we’re working on that one,” Musk gamely replied before saying: “Alright—welcome everyone to the Gigafactory launch party! I hope you’re having a good time.”

They were. The party’s attendees were almost exclusively Tesla devotees. “To be there in person,” according to Recode, “you would have to be a Tesla owner who referred five other buyers or just be a very important person of some sort.” Musk didn’t disappoint them. After being coached to “smile a lot” and to remember that “everything is awesome,” Musk and Straubel regaled everyone with a joint presentation, using an at-times comical Power Point, on the Gigafactory’s epic raison d’être—to accelerate, via a maximally efficient battery factory, the planet’s transition to a sustainable-energy future—and the factory’s “first principles physics” design.

The former, Musk said, required the latter. But what exactly does it mean to design something based on a “first principles physics” analysis?

Musk has emphasized the importance of this before. In an interview a couple years ago, he said it’s more effective than the normal way we conduct our lives: reasoning by analogy. When you reason by analogy, says Musk, you think, “We’re doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it’s like what other people are doing.” It’s “slight iterations on a theme,” he says, “so it’s mentally easier to reason by analogy than from first principles—a physics sort of way of looking at the world.” When you do that, says Musk, you “boil things down to their fundamental truths—what we’re as sure as possible is true—and then reason up from there.”

“When Aristotle wrote his Physics in the fourth century B.C., he wasn’t describing an academic discipline, but a mode of philosophy: a way of thinking about nature.”

That’s why, in his speech on Friday, Musk said the Gigafactory, a “vertically integrated” behemoth, is fundamentally unlike any factory in existence. “It’s basically designed like a high-density, multi-layered integrated circuit—like an advanced CPU—which is really, when you think about it, obviously how it should be done.” When you consider manufacturing efficiency, Musk said, you have to ask: “How long of a journey did that molecule take from where it was mined? If it was mined in one part of the world, and eventually does several trips around the world before it finally ends up in a finished product, that’s obviously just fundamentally going to be expensive. So it makes sense for rail cars of raw materials to come in one side of the factory and for finished vehicles to exit the other side.”

First Principles:  “I’m really excited about revitalizing manufacturing,” Musk told the audience on Friday, at the Tesla Gigafactory’s launch party in Nevada. “It needs love, and we’re gonna give it.”Tesla / YouTube

The Gigafactory “will have the output of all the lithium battery factories combined.”

Conceiving the factory this way required Musk to think of the Gigafactory as itself a product. Last month, in a Tesla blog post, he wrote, “A first principles physics analysis of automotive production suggests that somewhere between a 5 to 10 fold improvement is achievable by version 3 on a roughly 2 year iteration cycle. The first Model 3 factory machine should be thought of as version 0.5, with version 1.0 probably in 2018.”

The Gigafactory “deserves more innovation and more engineering skill than the product [of the factory—vehicles and batteries—] itself,” Musk said. Straubel pointed out the Gigafactory is a reinvention of the factory itself. Unlike most factories, the Gigafactory’s assortment of machinery is not selected from a catalog, bought from different manufacturers, and linked together piece-meal within a shell. Instead, each component of the Gigafactory was designed and built from the ground-up. Not doing this would be the equivalent of designing the Model S with parts from already existing cars, Musk said. “It would be ridiculous.” 

By eliminating that systematic inefficiency the Gigafactory, when it’s fully operational, “will have the output of all the lithium battery factories combined,” Straubel said. It will also be powered by only sustainable energy. “Geothermal for climate control, wind, and solar on the roof,” Musk said. Eventually, because it would be too cost prohibitive to ship Tesla customers’cars around the world, Tesla will have at least one Gigafactory on every continent, he said. “I think it’s going to make a lot of sense to localize production to the demand.”

If you’d like to learn more about the value and near-infinite application of the “first principles physics analysis,” read Philip Ball’s Nautilus essay, “Why Physics Is Not a Discipline.” Ball writes, “When Aristotle wrote his Physics in the fourth century B.C., he wasn’t describing an academic discipline, but a mode of philosophy: a way of thinking about nature. You might imagine that’s just an archaic usage, but it’s not. When physicists speak today (as they often do) about the ‘physics’ of the problem, they mean something close to what Aristotle meant: neither a bare mathematical formalism nor a mere narrative, but a way of deriving process from fundamental principles.”

Musk couldn’t agree more. In his speech, after describing how Tesla has applied this approach to the Gigafactory, he said, “I’m really excited about revitalizing manufacturing. It needs love, and we’re gonna give it.”

Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.