Tesla raises the bar on construction practices in the new, state of the art Gigafactory
Design Engineer: CH2M Hill
Project Engineer: Aspen Engineering
Manufacturer’s Rep: Braley-Gray
Just to the east of Reno Nevada sits a newly constructed, clean manufacturing facility of enormous proportions. Within the walls of this building are miles of vacuum waste plumbing, an advanced alternative to gravity plumbing that offers Tesla unrivaled flexibility and adaptability to meet ever-changing infrastructure demands.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, wasn’t interested in building just another factory. During a publicity event at the newly opened facility, Musk was heard saying, “[A factory] deserves more innovation and more engineering skill than the product itself.”
Tesla's Construction Challenges
Challenge #1 - Floor cutting and trenching for gravity drainage was too costly, too time-consuming, and too constraining.
Challenge #2 - The square footage in the Gigafactory is big enough that it could house one hundred 747s. At 6 million square feet, the challenges with moving waste in a traditional gravity system were immense.
Challenge #3 - Design to achieve maximum density and no wasted space was ongoing, so the location of bathrooms, eye wash stations, sinks, and other equipment or fixtures requiring drainage was continually changing.
The Conventional Plumbing Approach: Cost Prohibitive & Intrusive
Gravity plumbing was the obvious choice during the early phases of design. However, the design engineers quickly realized that the below-ground plumbing would have reached depths of more than 30 feet below grade to maintain slope. Pumping equipment would need to be located throughout the building to lift waste and move it. This also meant floor cuts, trenching, considerable trench export, lift stations, backfill, compaction, and resealing.
Once done, the drainage would be in fixed locations, constraining the designers or, worse yet, leading to relocation work. The obstacles seemed cost prohibitive and work intensive.
The AcornVac Solution: Cost Savings & Flexiblity
In the fall of 2014, a manufacturers' representative called Braley-Gray got involved. Braley-Gray represents a full array of plumbing, piping, and industrial products, including the AcornVac vacuum plumbing system. Braley-Gray began discussing the project with CH2M Hill engineers who were working on the concept design for the Gigafactory. CH2M Hill shared about the challenges ahead on the Gigafactory project and Braley-Gray confidently suggested they consider AcornVac’s vacuum plumbing solution.
The AcornVac solution would eliminate the cutting and trenching. Because the drainage went into an overhead, closed-network pipe, drainage could be picked up wherever it was required, lending dramatically to the ever-changing design needs. And it could travel the distances required to handle the size of the building.
Tesla’s representatives conducted a cost analysis of the vacuum system and decided that vacuum plumbing should be a foundational part of the project. There were cost savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The vacuum approach would allow the project to move on a far more aggressive schedule. And the ability to rearrange plumbing infrastructure whenever needed meant that the project designers were no longer beholden to the dictates of the plumbing when considering the optimal layout.
This new plumbing system gave them all new options that would eventually have a wide-ranging, positive impact throughout the project. It would change everything.
Transitioning from Conventional to Vacuum Plumbing
During the spring of 2015, CH2M Hill had completed their assignment, having functioned as the design engineers, and had begun to transition the project over to Aspen Engineering, the project engineer.
Aspen did not have experience with vacuum plumbing systems. However, "[AcornVac] stayed involved through the whole process,” said Quincy Collins, project manager.
Collins felt that any delays associated with getting personnel up to speed on the vacuum system were worth the investment.
“In our case, this is still the best choice. The standard system is quite inconvenient to use out there. Because it’s such a huge building, they would have had to dig large sump pits, gravity drained everything to those, and then pumped it back out,” said Collins.
In addition, Collins said the limited overhead space and slope required for such a massive building made the vacuum system a much better option.
Versatility in Construction
In a perfect world, the contractor and engineers are given plans that include the exact location of every fixture, but nobody lives in that perfect world.
Construction was well underway, and the locations of bathrooms, floor drains, emergency shower stations, and the locations requiring drainage were still in a state of flux.
Tesla wasn’t just building one of the world’s largest, clean manufacturing facilities, it was reinventing the manufacturing process. That commitment meant that plans constantly changed, and changes had to be incorporated on the fly.
Collins spoke confidently, “The flexibility of [AcornVac’s system] means you can design without the owner knowing where they want things to go because you can change it pretty easily. As long as you know the total number of fixtures, you can start designing from there.”
The AcornVac vacuum plumbing system conforms to Elon Musk’s vision of manufacturing. It proved to be reliable and easily modifiable. It afforded the design engineers the option to achieve ideal, minimized wasted space. And it challenged the status quo, causing engineers to ask “why?” about gravity drainage systems.
The AcornVac system was commissioned at the end of July 2016, just in time for the grand opening celebration held on July 29, 2016. Tesla invited somewhere around 3,000 people into the new factory, including current car owners and those with cars on order.
The system that had given them the solution to an impossible problem, allowed them to change plumbing on the fly and will give the facility continued adaptability as needs change in the future, functioned perfectly.
For more information on vacuum plumbing’s impact on the Tesla Gigafactory, you can access the full case study here.