The Seed Factory Project
- Unedited Notes
The Seed Factory Project is an open-source collaboration to develop the concepts, technologies, and working examples of self-expanding production systems. We want to enable a sustainable 21st century civilization with a high quality of life, and economic resilience by providing most needs from local sources. Early versions are designed for a community of independent owner-operators, who build the equipment and use the products it makes themselves. Later versions can be designed to grow to industrial scale, where larger quantities are made and sold. In the longer term, this technology will enable living in more difficult environments, and eventually beyond the Earth. It does this by minimizing the equipment needed to start, and using local raw materials and energy. The detailed processes and products for each application and environment will be different. The general idea of an integrated starter factory, which grows in capacity by making more equipment for itself, is universal.
Biological seeds grow into larger organisms using local matter and energy, and eventually produce copies of the original seeds. A Seed Factory is then a new kind of production system, which grows in a similar way from a small starter set to a mature factory, then make copies of the starter set. Like any factory, it produces useful products as outputs, but it also self-expands by making more factory parts for internal use. The expansion uses a combination of three methods:
- Replication - making copies of its own parts
- Diversification - making parts for new and different equipment
- Scaling - making parts for larger versions of existing equipment
The factory is designed to operate as an integrated whole. We refer to it as a factory rather than a single machine because a number of different materials and production processes are needed, which are best carried out by separate machines. In addition, for a useful level of outputs, the final set of equipment for a mature factory is closer to commercial building size than garage or desktop size. The "Seed", or starter kit, can be much smaller, just like a plant seed is much smaller than the mature plant it grows into.
Compared to conventional specialized factories, combining production steps allows more automation and reduced overhead. Integrated process flows also allows using wastes from one step as inputs to others, increasing overall efficiency. Starter kits will not be fully automated, nor able to make all their own parts internally. They will require inputs of labor, parts, and materials. As they grow, they can gradually become more automated and capable of a higher percentage of self-production. We think that modern computers, robotics, software, and sensors have reached the point that this kind of self-expanding system is possible. We also think that such factories can mostly use locally available raw materials and renewable energy, and recycle many waste products. The combination of a small starter kit, less need for outside supplies, and high levels of automation should make such factories sustainable and low cost to operate.
The conceptual design stage requires people with appropriate skills, and computers with appropriate software. We are operating as a distributed project where members will get a share of the resulting factory. Most people with the right skills have access to suitable computers and software, and computer-based design, simulation and software development are much less expensive in terms of equipment than physical hardware. Therefore we don't need much outside funding at present. That will likely change once hardware work begins. We will not have an estimate until the conceptual design is done and we know what component technologies and prototypes need to be built. Building a fully operating factory and a community for it to support is industrial and real estate development. This requires much larger amounts of funding, but there are also conventional methods in place to supply such funding. By that time we would have demonstrated the prototypes, which should make funding easier.
Our goal is the most benefit for the most people, and a fair return on their efforts to project members. Therefore the project as currently envisioned will open-source the design and technology, but members will own the physical location and hardware, and benefit from any products the factory produces. Because individuals will benefit, the project will likely be operated as a community-owned business, such as a limited liability corporation (LLC). The exact legal structure will need expert input and need to follow local laws, but the intent is that members get a proportional share according to what they put into the project. Inputs can be design work, funding, tools and materials, and physical labor. Since the design is intended to be open-sourced, it is open for any competent contributor. We request that if people contribute their work, they include data sources and calculations, so that others can check and improve upon it.
For the physical aspect of the project, we expect there to be a main location where the seed factory hardware is assembled and tested. Therefore whatever hands-on labor is required will need to use people from the local region, or members who can travel there. If there is enough interest and it makes sense, individuals and satellite groups can work elsewhere and ship parts and hardware to the main location. In return, outputs from the factory will be delivered directly to local members, or shipped if they are further away. Because the seed factory is designed to make a wide variety of items, members will be able to submit design files or select previously designed items to be custom made according to their proportional share in the project. Members should be able to mark design files as private (for their own use only), or public (contributed to a library for anyone to use or modify). Submitting designs or orders would be similar to rapid prototyping/3D printing services or conventional fabrication shops, except that project members own the factory. So they are using their own equipment to make things for themselves. We would also accept orders from the general public and sell surplus production to pay for things we cannot make internally.
The design goal is to support most of the food, housing, and utility needs of a community. Thus once the seed factory is operating and growing, we would start to buy and develop local real estate. The factory will produce building materials, grow food, and generate power and clean water. Members can then build residences, office buildings, and other items for themselves or to lease to others. Because the factory starts from common raw materials and uses automation, these end products should be much less expensive than conventional versions. If the first location is successful, then new seed factories can be set up in other locations and the whole process replicated.
Goals - The purpose of a seed factory is not just to make more of itself. The products we want the final factory to make determine what equipment it needs. In turn, that final equipment list determines what the starter set has to grow into. For the first generation factory, the "product" we have chosen is supporting the needs for food, shelter, and utilities of a local community. These are basic needs that everyone shares, so we hope the project will have widespread application, especially for people who don't have these needs fulfilled today. We put these general needs in more specific numerical terms, and then follow a Systems Engineering process to reach a design for the final factory and the starter set.
We think that meeting 100% of a community's needs is too difficult for a first generation factory. Therefore the initial goal is set at meeting 85% of their food, housing, and utility needs, with community members filling the difference with outside work and outside supplies. Because of self-production and automation, the bulk of community needs would be met with less work and less cost than conventional alternatives, giving a reason for people to participate.
Conceptual Design - We are performing an Initial Study as part of that process. The study is incomplete, but you can refer to it if you want to see all the current work. The study treats the factory and the community it supports as an interrelated system with input and output flows between them and with the outside world. It then uses the basic engineering principle that matter and energy are conserved, in other words they do not appear or vanish from nothing. Thus all resource flows of whatever type that enter and leave the system, or move between it's parts, must be accounted for in a complete design. This includes raw materials, recycled items, and final waste outputs. A design goal for sustainability is to use up more waste in the form of trash and scrap inputs from outside sources than we create, and to leave the land in better condition than it started. We don't know yet if that goal can be reached. By explicitly considering all the resource flows we will at least know where we stand relative to that goal, and what items need improving to reach it.
Development - Assuming we reach a good result, the initial study would be followed by more detailed design, technology development, and hardware demonstrations. Computer design, simulation, and software development is much cheaper, aside from the human time involved, than building hardware. So we will try to do as much of the early work as possible electronically. As it becomes necessary to prove a new component technology, or an element design is sufficiently complete, we will transition to hardware mode. As more of the elements are finished, our intent would be to build a working location with a complete factory and resident community to demonstrate the whole system works. The completed elements and machines of a partial factory can be used to make items for the project members or for outside sale. Thus it can be useful and productive as soon as one part is working.
Later Phases - Once a complete location is built, other people at other locations can then use outputs from this factory to make copies. They could also use the designs we develop to build their own versions from scratch, with adaption to local circumstances. After the first generation factory is demonstrated, we would continue to improve the technology and performance. The directions for improvement include higher percentages of self-production and automation, simplifying and optimizing the starter set, and adapting the seed concept to more difficult locations. These include less developed areas, harsh climates, and environments that lack particular resources. The most difficult locations would be beyond the Earth. An Earth factory could be adapted to build space hardware, which could be used to launch and set up a specially designed seed factory at some location in space. This would be operated remotely until enough human needs could be supported for residents to arrive. This would be an advanced application of the seed technology and require a lot of development. The first generation we are starting with is only designed to meet ordinary needs for people on Earth.
Current Design Summary
In order to grow into a larger and more diverse industrial capacity, the factory needs to extract and process raw materials, supply energy to operate, fabricate mechanical and electrical parts, and assemble them into new production elements. Beyond internal growth, it must also be able to provide maintenance for itself and useful products that people want.
Approximately 300 different production processes exist, but not all are required in the seed. We have identified eight basic production elements which we think are flexible enough to serve as a starter set. This may change as the design evolves. They are:
- (1) Modular Robotic Vehicle and Attachments - which provide physical transport and manipulation. The robotic arms and attachments can operate separately as stationary factory items, or attached to a vehicle. The robotic vehicle core can also operate without attachments for simple transport, or with any of a variety of devices like farm and construction equipment use.
- (2) Solar Furnace Facility - which provides electric power and high temperature process heating. Concentrated sunlight is a high quality energy source. Different target devices placed at the focus allow using the energy for different purposes like power generation, cement and brick making, and metals casting. A thermal storage bed stores excess energy for times when direct sun is not available.
- (3) Multi-Head Bridge Mill - which performs machining, 3D printing, plasma cutting, and other functions. The bridge has mountings for up to four different working heads, each of which can do a different task. The heads, in turn, can be exchanged whole, or swap bits or supplies at the sides of the frame. The shared bridge frame provides vertical and cross motion, and rails below the bridge provide the translation axis. The variety of functions and size of objects are only limited by the number of different heads and length of the rails and tables which ride them, respectively. Additional motion axes, if needed are supplied by the heads and tables, and tables can be swapped for different tasks.
- (4) Quad-Rail CNC Lathe - which does more accurate and symmetric parts. Two rails support the main spindles and workpiece, while the other two carry a cross-slide, turret, and milling head. Since the four rails are rigidly attached to each other, high accuracy is possible. The rotation of the spindle makes the lathe better for round parts, while the linear motion of the Bridge Mill is better for rectangular shapes.
- (5) Four Post Hydraulic Press - which does all types of forging, molding, shearing, and rolling. A press is generally not as accurate as machining, but much faster, and suitable for preparing raw stock for final machining. The four posts accurately guide a moving upper plate relative to a fixed lower plate, driven by a powerful hydraulic cylinder. A variety of attachments are fixed to the plates, like dies and molds, cutting blades, and rollers, and auxiliary heaters if needed for hot forging.
- (6) Flexible Process Plant - which does all sorts of physical, chemical, and electrical processes. Physical processes include things like grinding, mixing, and drying. Chemical processes involve reactions or catalysts, and electrical processes include electrolysis and plating. A variety of end products are made by connecting a series of units which do one step each in different sequences, and storing intermediate products as needed.
- (7) Electrical Shop - which produces simpler electric and electronic items, and assembles them into complete devices. Simpler items include wires, coils, filaments, batteries, transformers, motors, generators, and custom circuit boards. More complex parts like computer chips and displays are bought.
- (8) Modular Factory Building - which provides the proper environments for operations, utilities distribution, structural support, storage, assembly areas, and materials handling. It also provides for human work areas, and access for maintenance. The building is designed to be easily extended and re-arranged as the factory grows.
Not included in the above list are the computers, software, and network which control the automated operations, design files for the seed and new equipment, and the humans which tell the computers what to do, and perform manual tasks which are not automated. Each of the major elements can be extended with more units, attachments, tooling, and bits. Making such additions will be an early task for the seed factory. Nominally we would start with one of each core machine, but for higher production rates we can build multiple copies. The starter set is designed for maximum flexibility rather than maximum efficiency. Later additions can be more specialized. For growth, the starter set can be used to build more copies of themselves, different machines to extend the range of processes or increase efficiency, or bigger machines to increase production rates. Sufficient land is required for the buildings and solar collectors, and either on-site or nearby sources of raw materials. In it's most portable form, the system consists of design files and instructions to build the starter set and later additions.
The factory will not make 100% of it's own parts. At first this is because it does not have the all the machines required. Later on there will be scarce materials or complex parts like computer chips which are not economical to do internally. Instead the factory will sell surplus production of things it can make to pay for those it cannot. As the factory grows it will be able to make an increasing percentage internally. Our goal for the first generation seed factory is 85% self-production, with later generations reaching 98%.
The seed factory will also not be 100% automated. Current automation and robotics is not yet capable of doing every task. In addition, with finite time and resources to develop this project, we do not think we can design and program for every step. Finally, some tasks will only be done once or very rarely, so it is not worth automating. Therefore the factory will need human operators, either physically on-site or controlling equipment remotely, and to do whatever non-machine manual tasks are needed. Our goal for the first generation seed is to automate most of the routine and repetitive tasks. With additional time and resources, more of the tasks can be programmed to run automatically, improving productivity.
Like any workshop or factory we will also have supporting tools and equipment. These are for measuring, sharpening, hand finishing, manual assembly, maintenance, and similar tasks. We will need existing generation tools and equipment and a conventional building to make the prototypes and the first working version of the seed factory. Some of that may be done in distributed locations by project members or ordered from commercial suppliers, rather than in a central location.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Hasn't This Been Done Before?
The question naturally arises if this is such a good idea, why has it not been done before? Part of the reason is that until recently computers and automation were not up to the task. Another is that our capitalist system tends to separate production into specialized factories. The oil refinery is separate from the steel mill, which is separate from the auto plant. Because they are separate, you can't optimize the pieces to work together or automate the transfer of parts and materials between them. Finally, partial versions of a seed factory do, in fact, exist. Some advanced builders of automated machine tools use their own products to make more of themselves, and some factories use robots to make more robots.
Why Should We Do This?
The question will come up: "Why do this project? What problems does it solve?" We can sort the answers into technical, economic, and social, but in general we feel current industrial and social organization has deficiencies that self-owned, community-oriented, flexible production can address. Current business models rely on large, specialized factories, in diverse locations, under separate ownership from each other and their employees, with maximizing profit as the primary motivation. This business model creates the following issues:
- Large, specialized factories tie up a lot of capital in their construction, and do not respond well when technology or markets change. If the factory becomes uneconomic, it can have a disproportionate impact on a local community. Although economies of scale can apply to mass production, there are dis-economies to having a pyramid of highly paid management and slower reaction time of a large organization.
- The diversity of locations imposes long shipping distances for raw materials and finished products. This consumes energy, takes time, and requires multiple handling at each end of the shipping routes to load an unload. Physical separation makes it more difficult to automate tasks, or integrate flows between operations to gain efficiency.
- The separation of suppliers and customers, and owners and employees, tends to make them "other entities" to be taken advantage of, rather than collaborating for mutual gain. Thus the incentives for the owners are to reduce or eliminate wages in order to keep more for themselves, leading to job insecurity for the people who were doing the actual work.
- While increasing profit is well known to be a strong motivator, the modern world is more complex, and other factors are more important than in the past. The single-purpose corporate model of profit above all else is ill-suited to the modern environment. Considered as corporate entities, they must be forced to behave towards other goals against their basic nature. This creates inefficiencies in compliance overhead and inevitable attempts to avoid meeting societal goals. It would be better if goals besides profit were designed into the structure of an organization in the first place.
What is the Technical Background?
Tool Replication and Growth - Humans have used tools to make more tools since the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) development of sharpened stones and controlled fire. The whole of our technological civilization has been built up from simpler starter elements over time. Developing nations since the Industrial Revolution have used the virtuous loop of coal, steel, and steam to increase quantities of all three, and spin off other products powered by them. So in this sense the concept of a growing industrial capacity that makes more of itself is not new. As a continuation of this historical process we plan to use existing tools and machines to build the prototype machines for seed and final factories.
The new aspects to this project are treating the production and end users as an integrated system, purposely designing the elements so they can copy their parts, basing them on widely available and sustainable material and energy resources, and using modern automation and robotics to make them highly productive.
General Purpose Factories (Ford Rouge Plant)