What Is a Gigafactory? Elon Musk's Made-Up Word for a Future Factory Is Coming to Life

It's producing batteries at an unbelievable speed.

One of the most impressive machines from Tesla isn’t a car, but a factory.

The first Gigafactory, a giant operation that first took shape in a dusty nest in the Nevada desert is a massive battery factory is part of a plan to help transition the world onto renewable sources, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk claims that 100 such installations would be enough to cover the world’s energy needs.

Tesla’s first Gigafactory is a behemoth. Its planned annual production rate is set to reach 35 gigawatt-hours by 2020, exceeding the total global production of batteries in the year 2013. It’s enough to send 500,000 vehicles onto the road, and Musk has predicted, in dry style, that the rate means batteries will leave the factory “faster than bullets from a machine gun.” When complete, the solar panels on the roof are expected to help it run entirely from renewables.

The sheer scale of the factory has led to a number of other firms vying for “Gigafactory” status. Northvolt has been building Europe’s largest lithium-ion factory aimed at producing 32 gigawatt-hours after it starts production in 2020. Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. plans a 50 gigawatt-hour facility in the Chinese city of Ningde. By June 2017, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence was tracking 15 Gigafactory-like projects under construction, set to provide 230 gigawatt-hours of annual output that could power up to 3.5 million electric cars.

Elon Musk illustrates the size of the Gigafactory using hamsters.

What Does Gigafactory Mean?

Musk is believed to have first coined the term “Gigafactory” in November 2013, when he told investors during the company’s third-quarter earnings call that “there is going to need to be some kind of giga factory built” to handle the company’s upcoming high-volume production vehicle, the Model 3. Musk went on to say that the output would need to be “something that’s comparable to all lithium-ion production in the world in one factory.”

The word comes from the prefix “giga-,” which is used to denote a measurement that’s been multiplied by one billion. A common example of this is with the kilogram, which adds the prefix “kilo-“ onto “gram” to denote one thousand grams. “Giga” is believed to come from the Greek word “gigas,” meaning “giant.” In short, Musk is saying he wants a really huge factory.

Where is the Gigafactory?

There are actually three Gigafactories in the world:

  • Gigafactory 1: This is the one Musk was describing back in 2013. It’s located to the east of Sparks, a city in Nevada that shares a metropolitan area with Reno. The factory is located on — wait for it — Electric Avenue. Tesla broke ground on the plant in June 2014.
  • Gigafactory 2: This is the company’s solar panel facility that’s been operational since 2014. Starting from around February 2017, Tesla started referring to it as “Gigafactory 2.” It’s located in Buffalo, New York.
  • Gigafactory 3: This is the company’s latest factory. Construction started in January 2019. It’s located in the Lingang industrial zone of Shanghai, the first Gigafactory located outside of the United States.

Musk has also talked about building more Gigafactories, including one in Europe, possibly Germany.

What is Manufactured at Tesla Gigafactory?

That depends entirely on the Gigafactory!

Musk’s first Gigafactory primarily develops lithium-ion batteries from start to finish. Tesla’s partner Panasonic produces the cells in a secretive area of the factory, which carries out checks along the way to ensure high quality.

Alongside the batteries, the factory produces electric motors for the Tesla Model 3, the company’s cheapest-ever car, plus the Powerwall and Powerpack energy storage systems designed to work with renewable sources. These efforts complement the company’s other facilities, like the main car production plant in Fremont, California.

The second Gigafactory produces photovoltaic solar panels, like the ones used in the Tesla Solar Roof. The third Gigafactory is planned to produce affordable versions of the Tesla Model 3 and Tesla Model Y for the Greater China market, with Musk stating that entry-level vehicles like these “must be made on [the] same continent as customers.”

Gigafactory 1 will have the largest rooftop solar array in the world upon completion – 70MW or roughly ~200,000 solar panels
"Gigafactory 1 will have the largest rooftop solar array in the world upon completion," claims the company, adding it will create 70MW or roughly from about 200,000 solar panels.

How Big is Gigafactory?

When complete, the Nevada Gigafactory is expected to cover over 4.9 million square feet of space over numerous floors. This is expected to make it the largest building in the world. The building is only 30 percent complete at this stage, though, covering a space of 1.9 million square feet. The total plot of land measures five square miles.

The Buffalo Gigafactory covers slightly less space, at 1.2 million square feet. Tesla has yet to reveal the planned size of the Shanghai facility, but the plot of land measures 210 acres:

Drone footage of the Shanghai Gigafactory.

Is Gigafactory Operational?

Yes, to an extent. The Nevada Gigafactory started operations in January 2017, just over two years after ground broke. In August 2018, it announced that it had reached an annual production rate of 20 gigawatt-hours, more power than all automakers combined but 15 gigawatt-hours below its planned potential future output.

The Buffalo Gigafactory has been operational since 2014. The Shanghai factory is set to start producing cars by the end of this year, reaching high volume by 2020 when it’s expected to produce 500,000 vehicles per year.

How Many Employees Are At Gigafactory?

Musk stated in an October 2018 innovation summit with Governor Brian Sandoval that the Nevada Gigafactory employs around 7,000 people, but sees the workforce growing to 20,000 upwards in future. Tesla stated in November 2018 that the Buffalo facility employs 800 people.

Related video: Tesla Motivational Video Shows Employees Working on the Model 3