3.1 - Motivations and Economics
For seed factories to be built at all, or to be built in preference to conventional factories, people need enough motivation to devote the effort to build them. To build them also requires other inputs besides human effort. These include land, tools, materials, energy, funding, information, and others. In this section we will discuss reasons for individuals and groups that would motivate them to work on seed factories. Economics is an important motivator for people and society as a whole.
We can group motivations into personal reasons that can cause individuals to take action, and social reasons that can cause larger groups to do things, even if some members don't have enough cause on their own. People and groups differ individually from other people and groups, and people as a class differ from groups as a class. The motivations we present here will not all apply to everyone or all groups. For some people and groups they may not apply at all, and so they will be entirely uninterested in seed factories.
People have biological needs which motivate them. For example, when you are hungry, you prepare a meal or go to a restaurant. Most people have the foresight to take action before these needs become immediate. So we do things like work at a job to have money for stocking the pantry or going out to eat. If biological needs can be met with less work via self-expanding automation (i.e. seed factories), that would be a reason to take action and build them. People also have psychological drives that are not biological, but nonetheless motivate them. These include desires for autonomy, fairness, inclusion, improvement, purpose, and respect. To the extent seed factories can help meet these desires, people would also be motivated to build them. Finally, there are intellectual reasons where seed factories are better than current industry and therefore should be built. For example, they use more renewable energy and recycled materials and are therefore better for the environment.
Humans are Social Animals, and therefore form groups and interact regularly beyond the basic biological functions of mating and parenting necessary to continue the species. We create a vast array of social groups, from extended families and neighbors exchanging favors to complex formal and legal organizations like governments and large corporations. Most people belong to multiple groups, either willingly or by necessity. Groups can have rationales and motivations different from their members. For example, most people don't want to die, but an army by its nature exposes it's members to a higher risk of death.
Individuals may produce things for themselves, such as woodworking to make their own furniture. Self-expanding production, though, is complicated enough to need a variety of skills and equipment, beyond what individuals can supply. So they must form informal or formal groups of various kinds to carry out the tasks. Examples are trading networks where people exchange products and skilled work on an ad-hoc basis when needed, cooperatives to pool funds and efforts towards larger equipment and workshops, and business organizations operated for profit. As groups, they need reasons to involve themselves with seed factories, beyond the reasons of individuals. They can include anything from fellowship, economic advantage, to the public good. Economics is a powerful motivator for both individuals and organizations, so we will discuss it further below.
Economics is the social science concerned with the factors that determine the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. People need physical goods like food, shelter, and water. They also have desires for things beyond these basics, like education, health care, and entertainment, which are services performed by other people. Modern civilization is complex enough that it is not efficient to try and do everything for yourself. So people generally specialize in a particular task, or work for an organization which is specialized. They then trade for the things they need and want, but do not supply for themselves. The cost of these things is high enough that most people need to spend much of their time during their "working years" working for a generally accepted intermediate good, Money. Money in turn is traded for the other goods and services. Economics is a complicated enough subject to have entire university departments devoted to it. So we will not provide a full discussion of it here, but instead highlight a few concepts that are relevant to seed factories, and provide links to further detail.
Exponential Growth in mathematics is when the change in a function with respect to time is proportional to the current value. It can be expressed as the formula
where x0 is the value at time zero, r is the growth rate per time interval, such as 5% or 0.05, t is a variable time, and xt is the value of x at time t. In economics this is usually known as Compound Interest, where the interest rate is the percentage growth per time, usually years. The compounding refers to each year's absolute increase depending on the sum of the original amount and prior year's accumulated interest, which increases each year. So the growth rate in absolute terms increases constantly, while the rate as a percentage per time stays the same. Exponential growth occurs in other fields like biology and physics, but the relevance here is for factories that make new equipment at a rate proportional to their size.
The cost of many goods is high because the output quantity is linear with the input effort. For example, in construction, it takes about the same amount of work to build the next house as it did the last house. If you plant some acorns, however, you can eventually end up with an entire forest of oak trees. This is an exponentially larger result from a fixed amount of work. This is because the amount of sunlight and materials a growing tree can convert to make more of itself is proportional to leaf area it has. The leaf area, in turn, is part of the tree which grows each year. Individual trees have size and age limits, so the growth is continued by producing more acorns to start more trees. Applying this kind of growth, self-expansions and reproduction, to automated production systems can fundamentally change the result from a given amount of work from linear to exponential. That is a strong motivation to develop starter sets that can grow and replicate in this fashion.
In finance and investment it is well understood that a constant interest rate leads to exponential growth in money terms if reinvested. But that growth depends on the work of other people. The output from their work is still mostly linear, and therefore limited. The only ways for society as a whole to grow exponentially are through biology - more people and exploiting agriculture, or through production systems that mimic biology in copying themselves. Since population and our effects on the environment are reaching unsustainable levels, that leaves only production systems as route to sustainability and growth.
Categories of Production
Unless you happen to enjoy watching a complicated factory operate as entertainment, a self-expanding factory would be built to fill some economic purpose, typically end products and services that people want. When such a factory uses some of its output for maintenance and growth, not all of the outputs can be end products. For purposes of design and analysis, we can then divide the output into Internal Production, for use by the factory itself, and External Production, destined for end users or for sale. Internal production can further be divided into Maintenance, items needed to sustain operations like power and repair parts, and Growth, items which are used for expansion. Whatever part of production not used for maintenance and growth is available to end users. The portion assigned to external production can be divided into Private Production, which is destined for the factory owners, and Market Production, which is destined for sale.
How to divide up the production outputs is mostly a matter of choice for the factory owners. The exception is maintenance of operations, which is required if they don't want the factory to break down or wear out. The owners can choose a growth strategy which uses most of the outputs for expansion, and defers end-use private and market production until later. They can also choose a more balanced approach of some growth and some end-use outputs. A no-growth strategy which devotes all available outputs to end-uses is not very different from conventional factories, and removes most of the reason to use the seed factory approach.
In business finance, Operating Margin is operating income divided by operating revenues, usually expressed as a percentage. It is a measure of how much surplus or profit a business generates by its operations, before considering finance and capital. Operating margins greater than zero are needed for a conventional business to continue operating. For a self-expanding factory, much of the output can be used internally for growth, or directly by the owners. In that case net income and revenue may not be meaningful measures, because much of the output isn't sold.
For this type of production, we can instead define Production Margins in units other than money. These kinds of measures would give a better perspective on how well such a factory is doing. The External Margin is the ratio of external production (as defined above) to total production. It is a measure of how much output can leave the factory, and can be measured in terms of energy, mass, parts count, or other units. A conventional example is a nuclear power plant. Some of the electricity it produces is used in the plant itself for lighting and equipment. The external margin in energy terms is the percentage of total electricity that can be sent outside the plant to customers. The Total Margin for a factory adds the portion used for growth to the external margin. This leaves out maintenance, which are items consumed to keep the factory running. Total margin represents the surplus the factory produces over what it needs to keep itself running. Like conventional operating margin, total margin needs to be above zero to keep operating. Otherwise the factory is being consumed faster than it is being replaced, and eventually will stop working.
An ideal self-expanding factory would not only make all its own parts, but grow and expand its range of outputs without added labor, and without supplies from outside its own land area. So growth would be "free" in terms of input costs. Continuing production would only need to pay for raw materials, so the business operating margin in money terms would be very high. This ideal most likely cannot be reached, for a number of reasons. They include the level of automation technology, rare materials not found locally, and practicality and cost of trying to make every kind of part internally. Some labor and outside supplies would be needed, and therefore there are some costs for growth above the costs for production operations.
But the fraction of parts and materials such a factory can supply internally reduces the initial start-up cost, expansion costs, and later production costs of the mature factory into which it grows. For example, assume a seed factory starts at 10% the size of the final factory and initially can produce 60% of the parts for expansion. It then grows to producing 90% of of its parts at full size. The total capital cost will then be about 75% lower than building the mature factory directly. The higher ratio of outputs to capital cost is a strong economic reason to develop seed factories.
In economics, Workforce Productivity is defined as the value of the outputs divided by the hours of labor required to make them. An ideal automated factory would only need a human to press "Make" on a computer screen, and then wait for the product to be finished. Therefore workforce productivity would be extremely high. Automation and robotics is not at that level yet, but a seed factory type design can be optimized for existing automation, and upgraded over time as new software and hardware is developed. An example of such new technology is self-driving cars, which could be applied to the robotic vehicles in a factory. If the various steps in the production process are located close to each other and under common control, more automation can be used than with traditional geographically separated special purpose factories. The increased output from automation relative to human labor is another economic reason to develop the seed factory concept.
Besides the standard measure of productivity in terms of value, we can also apply other measures of output, such as mass, relative to labor required. The Productivity Ratio, is how much more a self-expanding and automated factory can output compared to a conventional factory that does not have those features. For a factory which makes much of its own capital equipment, we can define a System Productivity measure which includes the embodied labor in the equipment. Thus system productivity = (total output)/(direct production labor + capital equipment labor).