1.0 - Introduction
The main goal of this book is to introduce a new type of production system called a Seed Factory, in the context of existing fields of Engineering and Industrial Technology. In simple terms it consists of a starter set of automated equipment, plus conventional factory tools. The starter set, or Seed, uses energy and raw materials to expand itself to a desired larger production capacity. At the same time the expanding factory also provides self-maintenance and useful products as outputs. As a relatively new concept, there are no complete functioning Seed Factories yet. The proposed prototypes and project examples described in the book will have to serve as a substitute for practical experience until they do.
This section (1.0) gives a summary of the concept, and how self-expansion relates to previous ideas about replication, biology, and manufacturing. We then explore how the design of such a factory is different from a conventional one, the potential advantages of this kind of factory system, and candidate projects to apply it to. Section 2.0 looks at the history and progress to date, current work, and future technology needs and plans. Section 3.0 covers the individual concepts and methods needed to understand and design self-expanding systems. Section 4.0 then combines them into a design process. Sections 5.0 through 8.0 take our candidate projects and develop them in detail as design examples. From those examples we can evaluate the feasibility and usefulness of the Seed Factory method. The final section, 9.0, includes notes and reference material which are too detailed or too new to include in the main discussion, but which help support it.
The ideas embodied in the Seed Factory concept have their own histories, and relationships to other ideas. It is worth identifying the component ideas and placing them in their larger context before describing them in more detail.
All factories can be self-expanding to the extent they make a product used in their own construction. Conventional factories, however, are not designed for self-expansion as a primary goal. Rather, they are designed to produce a specific range of products efficiently and economically. For example, a sawmill produces lumber and the mill can largely be built from wood. A conventional machine shop can make metal parts of the same kind used in its own machines. But using these products internally is not usually a purpose these factories were specifically designed for. It is a consequence of factories needing to be made of certain materials. The factories which happen to make these materials will therefore often use them in their own construction.
If desired, a machine shop can can purposely self-expand by making metal parts and then assembling them into more machines. However parts fabrication and assembly are only two of the steps in a longer production chain. Machine shops usually do not make the raw bar stock they make parts from, or refine the ores to make the alloys for the bar stock. They also usually do not produce their own power to run their machines. A more fully self-expanding factory would do more of the steps from raw materials and energy supply to end products. We call one that can copy 100% of its own parts from raw materials Self-Replicating, an idea which has been explored since about 1950, starting with the brilliant theoretician John von Neumann.
Self-expansion is a broader concept than self-replication. Replication only means making a direct copy of the same parts the factory is made of, and is usually assumed to be a fully automated process. The kind of expansion we envision for our Seed Factory includes starting with a smaller and simpler set of equipment. This expands to a physically larger and more diverse set of equipment by making larger items, or new items not in the original set, in addition to direct copies. After expansion, it is able to produce a wider range of products, including even more diverse parts for even more new equipment types. A small starter set would not be capable of full self-replication, because a limited set of machines can not make the full range of parts of which it is made. Thus a starter set can makes some parts internally, and the remainder are supplied from outside the factory. As the Seed Factory grows, the additional machines and processes allow it to make a wider range of parts, and thus approach full self-replication.
Humans are very flexible general-purpose "machines". We can therefore sometimes use people to substitute for machinery and automation not yet added to a growing factory. Rather than assume full automation for a new Seed Factory, we instead include human labor where it makes sense, and grow towards higher levels of automation as the factory grows. This broad kind of expansion in size, range of outputs, and level of automation, beginning from a starter set, and using local materials and energy, seems to be a new concept, so we adopt a new name for it. The particular name "Seed Factory" was chosen to show the relationship to both biology and manufacturing:
Biological seeds grow into larger plants using local materials and energy, and eventually produce copies of the original seeds. By analogy, a Seed Factory grows from a small starter set (the seed) to a larger production capacity, and can eventually make copies of the seed equipment. Both are examples of Indirect Replication, where the seed does not immediately copy itself, but first grows into a larger entity and then makes a copy of the original. Besides the analogy to biology, a Seed Factory may literally use plant seeds to generate wood and fiber products, human food, fuels, and chemical feed stocks.
A self-expanding factory may also be thought of as a form of artificial life, because it exhibits many of the properties we associate with living things. These include homeostasis (maintenance of internal environment and state), internal organization, metabolism (converting materials and energy into parts for itself and wastes), growth, adaption (ability to change with time to respond to external conditions), response to stimuli (for example, production requests, or varying solar input), and reproduction (the ability to make copies of itself).
A factory is a purposely built place to do manufacturing processes, and a Seed Factory is therefore definitely a particular type of factory. We use the term "factory", rather than calling it a self-expanding machine, for several reasons. With the present state of technology a number of different materials and production processes are required, each of which is best carried out by a separate machine designed for it. Thus our factory will consist of multiple machines. Also, for the size and quantity of products we want to make, the mature set of equipment is closer to commercial factory building size than garage or desktop size. The starter set may be much smaller than this, but we think of it as the "seed from which a factory grows", in the same way an acorn is the seed from which an oak tree grows. A future generation design may completely fit within a shipping container or on a desktop. It might then be so integrated that a Seed Machine would be a better description than a factory composed of multiple machines, but we don't think such an integrated design is possible yet.
In English we make a distinction between a factory, which tends to output many units of the same products, and workshops of various kinds, like home garages and automobile repair shops. The latter change what they are doing on a frequent basis, according to outside needs. Typically factories are also larger than workshops. Some of the self-expanding systems we describe in this book might better be described as workshops, because they grow to make a variety of items on demand and reach a smaller final size, rather than growing into large scale repetitive production. For simplicity we will use the term "factory" to refer to all types of designs, but we recognize there are different uses for such designs.
- Economic Development
In addition to the words that make up the label "Seed Factory", such self-expanding systems are related to concepts of economic development, particularly in less developed nations or regions. By providing large amounts of physical products and energy from a small starter kit, they can contribute to the development of an area in an efficient way. Mere physical outputs alone, however, are not a complete solution to developing an area. That requires integrating social developments like health care, education, and legal and civil rights. Modern design processes incorporate these other factors by including them as design requirements, functions, and flows. For example, waste outputs and safety hazards can impact the health of a community. They are limited by imposing design requirements on a factory.
Merely stating that we want a factory that is self-expanding does not tell us what features should be included or how it needs to be designed differently than a conventional factory. Collectively we call these features and design methods the Design Approach. We list some of the elements of the design approach here, and will go into more detail later in the book:
- Growth, Adaptability, and Integration
Traditional factories tend to be relatively fixed in capacity, and make a limited range of products. Therefore a single design optimized to those conditions is a reasonable approach. In contrast, a Seed Factory can grow continuously from the starter set to an expanded capacity. As it adds a wider variety of machines and processes, it can both make a higher percentage of parts for itself, and a constantly growing range of products. Therefore the evolution of the factory over time must be planned for in the original design. The future, however, cannot be entirely known in advance. End users may want different products, or a new production process might be developed. To adapt to these uncertainties, features like flexibility and modularity in the design become more important relative to production volume. No matter what size it is, a Seed Factory should be designed as an integrated whole, rather than as a collection of machines that just happen to be housed in the same factory building. This means considering the input and output flows between different production processes, using wastes from one as inputs to another, and recycling items where possible. This is in addition to conventional design that tries to optimize the individual machines that perform each step.
- Automation of Change
Automation is widely used in modern manufacturing. However, reaching a high level of automation with a constantly changing factory is a new challenge. Factory planning has traditionally been a human design task. With a growing factory such as this, we would also like to automate the planning process. One way to approach it is to describe all the factory equipment and end products in a library of design files. The files not only specify the shapes of parts to make, but also their input material and energy needs, and the various processing and assembly steps. A request to produce a given item then gets converted to a series of tasks based on this data. The tasks are assigned to either automated equipment, humans where the task is not automated, or to purchase items that cannot be made internally. Additional production orders are assigned backwards from final assembly to earlier steps in the production chain. These make more inventory or other supplies for the later steps, all the way back to raw materials and energy supplies. Thus expanding the factory by adding a new machine is treated the same as any other product, as a series of steps that lead to final assembly.
The production software would recognize what equipment is available in the factory at any given time. So, as the factory matures and develops, a given product design would generate a different production flow, based on the current capabilities. If there is not enough total capacity in the factory for all the production orders in progress, the software might also generate a request for more equipment to expand the factory. This would get inserted along with all the other production work. Thus the factory would adapt to current needs. The design of all possible future equipment and products is not necessary or desirable at the start. You can build a Seed Factory with a limited set of design files covering the starter set of equipment and early end products. As designs for new products or factory equipment are developed, they can be added to the design library, and produced when needed.
We think that modern production designs need to go beyond just optimizing production volume and cost, and account for additional factors such as sustainability. Living plants mostly grow from commonly found energy and materials in the local environment, and biological systems have a high degree of materials recycling. We would like to copy these features, so that our factories can have the kind of ubiquity and sustainable time scales found in the biological world. The factories must be consciously designed for this - many existing factories use scarce resources with little, if any, recycling. Ways to design for this include making it an explicit design requirement, and considering the relationships between processes. For example, making cement gives off Carbon Dioxide, and greenhouse plants might want to consume extra Carbon Dioxide, so it makes sense to use the waste product from one process as an input to another.
- Complex Systems
Seed Factories rely on advanced industrial automation, integrated flows, and continuous growth and change via design and self-expansion. The different processes and manufacturing steps combine elements from mechanical, electrical, chemical, biological, and other engineering fields. There are also multiple design goals we want to meet at the same time. This makes them complex projects to design and build. The Systems Engineering method has been developed since the mid-20th century to manage such complex projects, so we adopt that as our main design process. We will also borrow design tools and methods from other areas, like industrial technology and building construction where appropriate.
Aside from purely intellectual interest, a practical question is why to build a self-expanding design rather than a conventional factory? The answers involve technical, economic, and personal advantages. If these advantages are large enough, then people will use it as a large-scale production method. We have identified a number of features of Seed Factories that we expect will be advantages, and list them below. More work is needed to prove they actually are advantages, and quantify by how much. We hope to make progress on this question in the course of writing this book, and by designing and testing hardware and software for such factories.
- Integrated Automation
A growing Seed Factory should be more productive and less expensive than conventional factories. The design would include an increasing variety of computer/automated/robotic elements. Thus relatively little human labor is needed, lowering costs. Multiple production steps from raw materials to end products are brought together in one place. This allows automating the transfer between production steps. Compared to conventional specialized factories it eliminates packing and shipping between factories, and the energy and labor to transport the items. The increased level of automation and reduction in transportation should significantly reduce cost.
The level of automation scales with the growth of the factory. In the early stages, a necessary machine or process might not be available. In that case the instructions would call for ordering a part from outside, or ask a human to do a manual task. When the factory is more mature, the same task might be entirely automated. Full automation is probably not possible at present, but we think that computers, robotics, software, and sensors are advanced enough that a highly automated and integrated factory can be built. We also think existing technology enables running such a factory mostly on locally available raw materials and renewable energy. This should make it both sustainable and low cost to operate. It therefore should compete favorably with traditional factories.
A Seed Factory, within the capabilities of current technology, can grow to be nearly self-replicating. Thus after the first one is built, you can get a nearly exponential growth in capacity. It is flexible and general purpose by nature, able to make any product it is fed instructions for and within its capabilities. This includes a variety of useful end products, new equipment for diversification, and more Seed Factories if desired. Although organized into different processes and machines, the factory as a whole is designed and operated as an integrated system with unified control. Each part of the factory contributes to the maintenance and operation of the other parts, as well as to useful final products. Therefore it is substantially self-supporting and independent. This kind of growth is especially useful where local production is lacking or non-existent.
A Seed Factory is more portable than a conventional factory. The most compact version is just the set of design files for the starter kit, expansion equipment, and end products. The design files would include instructions on how to build the starter set from easily available sources and equipment, and then how to progressively expand it. In this form it can be distributed anywhere at low cost. A more complete and ready to use version would include some hard to make parts and materials along with the design files. Local supplies would be added to these to build the complete seed factory. An even more complete version would arrive in shipping containers, immediately ready to work. These portable forms contrast with the traditional "site-built" factory, which is fairly immobile.
A Seed Factory does not have to exist in a single location, like most traditional factories. If desired, it can operate as a distributed production system connected by computer networks. However, automated transfer between different machines, or delivery of parts and supplies between them, is made easier if they are physically close together. With modern communications the owners and operators can also be distributed, controlling some operations remotely, while the hardware is in close proximity for efficiency. The flexible layout is an option enabled by modern technology that was not available in past decades. It lets the owners arrange things how they want, rather than being forced to do it the only way possible with older technology.
The economics of a Seed Factory are better than a conventional factory. At first it cannot make 100% of the parts and materials it needs. It produces a surplus of the things it can make, and sells them to pay for the items it cannot supply internally. As the factory grows towards maturity, with increased process diversity and capacity, it will make more of it's own items and need less from outside, thus lowering the cost of production. To the extent the factory can build itself, rather than buying all the equipment directly, it requires less capital than directly building a conventional factory.
Traditional factories reach low unit cost by economies of scale and mass production. A mature Factory expanded from a Seed Factory reaches low unit cost by reduced capital, automation, integration, and inputs closer to raw materials. Conventional factories tend to be large and unable to operate until completed. Therefore they need a lot of capital investment which must wait until production starts for a return. The capital tends to come from large and patient sources, who are usually not the same people who eventually work in the factory. Growth from a starter set makes it easier for the workers to also be the owners. As owners they will be more secure in their jobs, and more willing to invest in themselves and the factory for the long term.
In addition to proving design feasibility and technical advantages, a self-expanding factory needs suitable practical applications. Different applications will likely need to be designed with different starter kits and growth paths to follow. Since functioning Seed Factories have not been built yet, we will develop several examples in the later sections of this book. They will serve to illuminate the range of possible uses for such factories, and the differences between designs prepared for different purposes. The process of developing each example is also a guide for how to design for other applications not covered in the book. Our current examples include:
- Personal Factory
Our first example provides a wide range of products for a local community of owner/operators, such as food, building materials, and utilities. It starts with a conventional workshop and a starter set of Seed Factory machines, then expands over time to full capacity. It is personal in the sense that the owners can order it to make things for their own use. It is not like a Personal Computer as far as having a single owner. It is likely too large and complex to have the complete factory at one home or operated by one person. In a distributed version, each member would own one or a few of the machines. A production request is then transmitted to the entire distributed set, who work together to make the product. In that case some means is needed to settle up the resources and costs incurred for each owner. In a more centralized version the equipment is mostly in one place, with shared ownership. It can then operate like a conventional workshop, building items on demand for outside customers, as well as making items for the owners.
- Industrial Factory
In this example, the end goal is large scale production of specialized products, much like conventional factories. The starter kit and self-expansion would just be a less expensive way to reach the desired production capacity. In one form, the starter kit is mobile, and is used like construction equipment. Once the industrial factory reaches operation, the Seed Factory moves on to the next project. In another form, the starter kit remains part of the permanent installation. The growth path for the Industrial Factory is towards scale and efficiency rather than diversity of outputs. The larger scale means it will likely use conventional factory financing and the equipment and products will be more optimized for their given tasks.
- World Wide Factory
This example maximizes the distributed approach to be all over the world. Production nodes would use the Internet to communicate with each other, with users/customers, and with remote operators. As a user, you submit an order for an item through a website. Production requests are routed to various nodes to supply the materials, fabricate parts, etc by the most efficient path. Eventually the finished item is delivered. Production nodes can contain any number of machines and processes. Since those items can themselves be made by other nodes, the first Seed Factory can spread everywhere over time. For node operators, the Internet allows people to work remotely from the actual hardware. This has potential advantages in commuting cost and flexibility in hours and location.
- Remote Locations
Our last example assumes you have a remote or difficult location where you want to operate. The benefit of self-expanding production is in not having to bring all your infrastructure with you. You bring only the starter set and have it grow in place. Examples of remote locations are deserts, ice caps, the oceans, and space. The more difficult and remote the location, the higher the cost of transporting everything there, and the more incentive you have to use a small starter set. High levels of automation and productivity would make it possible to live and work in these difficult locations by providing the infrastructure and resources needed. Remote controlled operation allows building up capacity without necessarily living there. For example, the Sahara Desert may be a great place to make solar panels, because of abundant sunlight and sand as inputs. But people may not want to live there full time, and working remotely can allow that choice. Conversely, if technology enables living in a remote location, it might be desirable for some. Since other people can't live there, land would be cheap, or it might scenic or other features people would prefer.
The book is being developed as part of the Seed Factory Project, which is an open-source collaboration to develop the technology and hardware for Seed Factories. The original author is Dani Eder, 1309 Stroud Ave, Gadsden, AL 35902, user Danielravennest on Wikibooks, and email firstname.lastname@example.org. Other contributors are welcome and can choose to add their names and contact info here if they wish. If you contribute to the book, we ask that you provide sources for your data and calculations, so that others can check the work.