9.0 Notes (page 9)
[Old Text Still To Be Merged Or Moved]
The previous headings discussed the design approach and economic advantages. To be useful, the seed factory concept should also have practical applications. Different applications will likely need different starter sets and growth paths. Identifying and designing for these applications will help discover what parts of the self-expansion process are universal and what parts are particular to a given use. Functioning seed factories have not been built yet, so we can't point to existing applications like in more experienced engineering fields. Instead we present several future examples in the later sections of this book. They will serve to show the range of possible uses, and what differences may exist between designs prepared for them. The process of developing each example is also a guide for how to design for other applications not covered in this book.
Our current examples are drawn from two sources. One is a proposed program to upgrade civilization on Earth, and progressively expand to more difficult environments, including multiple regions in space. This program uses seed factories as a core method to reach these goals ( Program Overview, 2017). The program assumes a progression of self-expanding systems. These start with smaller and simpler ones in easy environmental conditions in developed locations. The early systems then help produce starter sets used in progressively more difficult and remote locations on Earth, and eventually in space. The later locations start with less or no local development, requiring more advanced and complete starter sets. The progression from easier to more difficult projects allows building experience before attempting the harder ones. We discuss the systems used on Earth in this book, and those for use in space in part 4 of a second book on Space Systems Engineering.
The other source for our examples is industrial-scale production for a sample list industries selected for concept exploration studies. The sample industries are intended as a representative set of 50 selected from the full range of 2700 sectors tracked by the US Census Bureau. The study process is to take each industry and work backward from their products, and the needed equipment to produce them. The goal is to identify starter sets and growth paths that lead to the desired end-points.
The four examples we have chosen are each given their own section later in the book, with the intent to carry their conceptual design as far as we are able. Supporting information outside the discussion in the book is linked when available. Work on these examples is currently incomplete. The examples are:
The other thread that runs through history is self-improvement in many forms. Farmers bred better plants and animals to supply their food, and tool-makers used existing tools to make better ones. Transmitting knowledge went from oral and cave paintings to the Internet, making it easier for people to improve their knowledge and skills. We think that self-improving systems can address the labor displacement problem noted in the previous paragraph. A self-improving production system that meets people's needs directly, rather than by trading labor for money may offer a solution. Such a system can use the same kind of smart tools that cause the problem. To these it adds several self-expansion paths: replication, diversification, and scaling. This makes the system affordable by only needing a small subset to get started, which later grows to the size needed to meet people's needs.
This book first looks at the history of self-improvement which led to the current economic system. We then identify economic problems with this system, including the potential for large-scale labor displacement by smart tools. Past attempts and recent proposals have not fully solved these problems. Having laid out the problem, we then look at relevant concepts from which we can build a solution. Third, we identify "Seed Factories" as a kind of self-improving system that could solve the problem. The remainder of this book, and a follow-on to it, then explore the design process, practical applications, and future projects which incorporate such systems, and lead to a better future.
We propose a new approach, based on the same processes which have always been used, but shifted to networks of owner-operators and their tools. They bootstrap from smaller and simpler starter sets called "Seed Factories". They use their labor and skills to increase the diversity and scale of their tools, and upgrade to more capable ones. This includes making copies of existing tools as needed, and eventually adding smart ones. The growing networks are used to meet some needs directly, and generate a surplus that can be traded for the rest. Replacement of their labor by smart tools is not a problem for the owners of such systems, since they still benefit from the products being made. In this way the tools can solve the very problem they create. Systems that can bootstrap from a starter set, and grow to whatever size is needed, are not limited to solving economic problems. We finish by looking at other ways this approach can build a better future.
Sections 2 and 3 introduce the idea of intentionally designed systems which can grow and improve themselves. A particular instance of such systems is the "Seed Factory", a starter set of equipment which can make parts for more equipment. The growing set of equipment devotes part of its output to useful finished products, and the remainder to self-growth and improvement. If the factory has grown enough to produce new starter sets, it becomes self-reproducing and can grow exponentially. A large enough collection of factories can then solve a large problem, like climate change.
Self-expanding factories, human civilization, and the problems it faces are all complex. Engineering is the application of knowledge towards practical ends. A particular engineering method, "Systems Engineering", was developed to deal with complex projects. Section 4 introduces this method, and other engineering fields we can use to develop seed factories and products they can produce. The remainder of Volume I then presents a progressive series of applications of self-expanding systems on Earth. The applications are linked by the fact that a current factory can produce the seed elements for later applications.
This book serves two main purposes. The first is a textbook-style introduction to production systems that feature high levels of self-expansion, integration, and automation. Their design builds on experience in existing fields of Engineering and Industrial Technology. The second is to support actual designs leading to working examples. We explore several such design concepts, and provide guidance on how they can be developed. We invite collaboration to work on these examples as open-source projects, with a goal of building functioning machines and complete systems.
- What is a Seed Factory?
A Seed Factory is a starter set of tools and machines, which is specifically designed to grow by making more equipment for itself. This is in addition to the general purpose of any factory, which is to make useful products. The growth can be directed towards a larger mature production capacity or to making copies of the starter set. It can also be open-ended, without a set growth target, or some combination of these growth paths. The direction of growth, and therefore the composition of the starter set, is set by the system's owners. The starter set typically includes some conventional workshop tools and equipment, and preferably some flexible automated machines. It also includes plans and instructions for making more equipment. In the most portable form, the "seed" consists only of the plans and instructions. Factory builders can then bootstrap construction from locally available parts, materials, and equipment.
With the present state of technology, a set of tools and machines cannot operate or grow unaided. They need people with the right set of skills to use them. In most cases they also need a starting inventory of land, money, energy, materials, and parts. As the set grows, it will likely need more of these, and the addition of some whole equipment items. We therefore distinguish between a bare factory, which is a collection of tools and equipment, and a complete self-expanding system, which is the bare factory plus everything else needed to function and grow.
As production capacity grows, and higher levels of automation are added, fewer people and outside supplies will be needed on a relative basis. Larger machines can usually produce more outputs for the same number of people running them, and automation reduces how many people are needed. A wider collection of machines can work with more types of materials and produce more kinds of parts internally, so less of these need to be supplied from elsewhere. The people and supplies may still increase in absolute quantity if production outputs grow faster than technical improvements reduce the need for them.
To make self-expanding systems sustainable, we would prefer using local renewable energy and raw materials as inputs, and incorporate high levels of recycling. The ratio of outside supplies to local and recycled inputs will change with time, as the production system evolves. The general trend is towards a larger and more diverse set of equipment and processes, higher levels of automation and self-production, less need for outside supplies, and those supplies being closer to raw materials than finished items. The expanding factory also provides for self-maintenance by making replacement items for itself.
The total output of the factory is divided between items used for self-maintenance and growth, and finished products to be used elsewhere for other purposes. The fraction of finished products can vary from 0%, with all outputs directed to maintenance and growth, to 100%, i.e. all finished products and no growth. The proportion of finished products can vary with time. Historically, most factories have operated close to or at 100% useful products, with little to no outputs used for self expansion. A high output percentage directed at self-expansion, for a substantial time, differentiates self-expanding systems from other types of production.
Physically, the equipment and their operators may be located in one place or many, with single or multiple owners. Regardless of their location and ownership, the operators and their equipment communicate and transfer inputs and outputs so as to function as a cohesive whole. Historically, factories gathered equipment and workers in single locations, because that was the only efficient way to operate. With modern communications and electronics this is no longer an absolute requirement. The equipment and their operators can be more distributed while still coordinating the work. To be sure, there will still be technical advantages in gathering some of the equipment in groups, but not necessarily all of it. So in this book, when we say "factory", we do not mean a single building with a smokestack in the traditional sense. We mean a production system operated towards common goals, however it is physically arranged.
The particular combination of (1) a starter set designed for self-expansion, (2) a broad kind of growth in size, complexity, range of outputs, and level of automation, and (3) significant use of local materials, renewable energy, and recycling is new. So we adopt Seed Factories as the name for this approach. The name was chosen to show the relationship to biology (where seeds grow and copy themselves) and more conventional factories. Seed factories are a member of the more general class of self-expanding systems. Since it is a new approach, no complete designs or functioning examples have been made yet. Individual parts of the seed factory approach are not new, though.
- Book Organization
The various ideas that are relevant to the seed factory approach, and those related to self-expanding systems generally, have their own histories. Making tools and other useful items has an even longer history, long predating humans as a species. So the next part of this introduction describes how self-expanding systems relate to ideas about replication, biology, manufacturing, and economic growth. We then explore how design for growth differs from conventional factory design, and the potential advantages of this kind of production system. For seed factories to be more than intellectual curiosities, they also need to have practical applications. The last part of this introduction presents some candidate applications of increasing scale and difficulty. The later sections of the book are intended to cover all of these topics in greater detail:
- Section 2 looks at expansion, growth, and replication as natural processes, and as elements of human culture. We then look at how they can be combined into the current seed factory concept. Section 2.1 looks at the research and development needed to bring the concept into practical use.
- Section 3 covers engineering concepts and methods related to self-expanding system. These are used to better understand and design such systems.
- Section 4 then combines them into a design process based on the Systems Engineering approach.
- Sections 5 - 8 explore four candidate applications for the seed factory approach. These applications are presented for their own sake, and as examples for developing other uses.
- Section 9 includes additional notes and reference material. These are too detailed or too new to include in the main discussion, but which help support the earlier parts.
Seed factories as described in this book are still a new approach. So we don't have the level of experience to draw on that more established fields of engineering have. The book is therefore a work-in-progress and necessarily incomplete. Books about self-expanding production systems will remain unfinished to some degree, until enough experience and working examples exist to write definitive works about them.
There are several general concepts which are relevant to self-expanding systems, and seed factories in particular. These are broad enough that we can't fully cover them here, but we provide some links and references for further study.
The conventional approach to factory expansion has been to add to the existing buildings and purchasing more production equipment. The expansion items are produced elsewhere, then delivered and assembled on the factory site. Self-Expansion is when earlier production steps, like materials processing and fabrication, occur within the existing factory, and not just final assembly and installation of new equipment made elsewhere. All factories can be self-expanding to the extent they make a product used in their own construction. For example, a Sawmill produces lumber, and the mill could be built mostly from wood. A conventional Machine Shop can make metal parts of the same kind used in its own machines. 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. Using these products internally is usually not done. When it happens, it is a side effect of factory components being made from certain common materials and types of parts. The factories which happen to make these items can then use them in their own construction.
A machine shop can can expand itself on purpose 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 don't make the metal bar stock they consume, nor refine the ores and make the alloys for the bar stock. They don't typically produce their own power for the machines, either. A more fully self-expanding factory would do more of the steps from raw materials and energy supply to end products. We call a system that can copy 100% of its own parts from raw materials Self-Replicating. The idea of Self-replicating Machines, as distinct from biological systems, has been seriously explored since about 1950, starting with the brilliant theoretician John von Neumann.
Self-expansion for engineered systems is a broader concept than self-replication. Note that self-expansion has a different meaning in economics, which is not the same as we are using here. Self-replication means making an exact copy of the same parts the system is made of, and is often assumed to be a fully automated process. Self-expansion includes both less and more than just making exact copies. A seed factory starts with a smaller and simpler set of equipment, which may not be able to fully copy itself directly. This is because a limited set of machines may not be able to make all the parts and materials from which they themselves are made. The starter set can expand, with the help of outside supplies, to a physically larger and more diverse set of equipment. It can do this by making larger machines of the same types it already has, and by making new new machine types not in the original set. These expansion paths are in addition to making exact copies of some of the original equipment parts. After a round of expansion, the larger factory is able to make a wider range of products, including even more diverse parts for even more new equipment types. After growing sufficiently, the expanded factory may now be able to produce much more than just copies of the starter set. This sort of growth and then later making copies of a starter set is called "indirect replication" and is found throughout the biological world.
A self-expanding type system, in the process of growth, can make some of the new parts and materials it needs internally. The remainder are supplied from outside sources. As the factory grows, the additional machines and processes allow it to make a wider range of its own parts, and need fewer items from outside. It is not likely to reach 100% self-production. This is because some raw materials will be scarce at a given factory location, and some hard-to-make items are easier to buy from specialists than try to make internally. Leading-edge computer chips are an example of the second category. It would be more economical to over-produce items which can be made internally, then trade them for the rare or hard to make items. The percentage of self-production at various growth stages then becomes a matter of economics and optimization, and is likely to level off at some high value.
A starter set is easier to design than a fully self-replicating factory. There are fewer machines in the set, since they use a smaller range of materials and make fewer kinds of parts. By choosing the most commonly used materials to start with, like steel and glass, a few machines should be able to capture a high percentage of self-production by mass right away, and therefore lower the cost to get started. If you later want to grow to where you can fully replicate the starter set, or make an even wider range of products, then additional design effort will be needed to do so. But this effort can be spread out in time, rather than all at the start for a factory that is capable of self-replication the first day.
The term Bootstrapping is used in a number of fields, and generally refers to a self-starting process which proceeds without external input, or a simple system which activates a more complicated one. In a sense, all of modern civilization has bootstrapped itself from simpler versions, stretching back in time. However, civilization was not purposely designed to grow in this fashion. It grew the way it did from a chance combination of invention, labor, and available resources. We could, in theory, replicate the bootstrap process from rocks and sticks to modern production machinery, but this would not be the most efficient route. It makes sense to use knowledge, tools, and resources that already exist as a starting point, and not artificially isolate a self-expanding system.
We can describe bootstrapping as a general process that uses existing knowledge and artifacts to make more of both. A self-expanding seed factory is first designed using prior engineering knowledge. These designs include plans and instructions for the starter set, and for later expansion items. Once made, the designs are an addition to civilization's store of knowledge. Parts and materials for the starter set are made using already existing equipment. As the new factory grows, additional parts and materials are supplied as needed from outside, until it can make most or all of them on its own. The tools and equipment in the starter set, and later expansions of the factory, are additions to civilization's store of artifacts. Seed factories are therefore a continuation of the bootstrapping process by which civilization has grown. Being purposely designed for growth, they should be more efficient at it, and can serve as starting points for many kinds of development and expansion.
- Mechanization and Automation
Mechanization and Automation are two important Productivity Improving Technologies. They have greatly increased production output in relation to labor input, and helped enable higher living standards across civilization. Mechanization is the replacement of human or animal muscle with other working forces for tools and machines. Historically it included wind, water, and steam, and today includes electrical and hydraulic power. Mechanized machines often have both intermediate and ultimate sources of energy to operate. For example, a Hydraulic Excavator, a modern replacement for manual shovels, converts the chemical energy in fossil fuels to mechanical power for a hydraulic pump, which in turn supplies pressure to hydraulic cylinders and motors at the point of use.
Muscles have modest efficiency, converting 18-25% of food energy to work. Food production is itself inefficient, converting about 0.5% of incoming sunlight to edible products. Muscle power is also quite limited, about 25 W per person as a 24 hour average, while draft animals can supply 2-10 times this. In comparison, a modern farm tractor can deliver 150 kW, or 300 times what a pair of horses can supply. A photovoltaic Solar Farm has an overall efficiency of about 8.5% in converting incident sunlight to power. This compares to 0.125% total solar efficiency for muscles powered by food, a ratio of 68 to 1. It is these large increases in power and efficiency which have enabled improvements to civilization.
Automation at a basic level is the use of Control Systems to operate equipment. Where mechanization replaces muscles, automation replaces human choice and direction by our nervous system. A simple example is a thermostat (a temperature controlled switch) to turn a house heating system on and off. A variety of control systems have been used since the mid-1700's. In the 20th century, increasing use was made of electrical, electronic, and then programmable controls. The newer types were easier to modify and could carry out more complicated control tasks. More advanced automation allows equipment to mostly run itself, producing more outputs relative to the number of people involved. Full automation, the complete replacement of human effort in production, is not yet practical, even for simple tasks. Devices don't know what we want, so we still have to set the desired temperature on a thermostat. More human interaction is needed for complex tasks like running and maintaining factory machines, even if they can run unattended for a time. Electronics, computers, and their software have rapidly improved in recent decades, making it practical to use increasing levels of automation.
In the context of bootstrapping self-expanding systems, we can think of people as very flexible general-purpose "machines". They can fill in where machinery and automation are not yet added to a growing factory, or perform tasks not yet possible or economic to automate. Rather than assume a seed factory needs to start with full automation, we assume people are used where it makes sense, and production evolves towards more advanced equipment over time. Depending on funding and circumstances, production may begin with unpowered Hand Tools, then progress to portable Power Tools. This can be followed by larger Stationary Machines, which are not normally moved between tasks, and ones with Engines capable of moving by their own power. The last step is adding automated equipment which control themselves to an increasing degree. We can call this last group Smart Tools - tools which need fewer or no people to wield them. Smart tools include some mixture of automation, robotics, software, and artificial intelligence. At any given point, a factory will generally include simpler and smaller tools along with the larger and more advanced ones. They are used for maintenance of the other equipment, or when tasks are too infrequent or short for dedicated machines.
- Local Energy and Materials
As of 2014, 81.1% of World Energy Consumption was powered by fossil fuels, including most of the transportation of raw materials and finished products. We now know this use is unsustainable, due to over-accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the side-effects they produce. We would prefer using local Renewable Energy sources and Raw Materials where possible. Renewable energy directly substitutes for fossil fuels. Local sources of energy and materials reduce the amount of transport required. Since most transport is currently fossil fuel-based, reducing it makes it easier to become sustainable, even before a shift to alternatives like electric vehicles. Electric Power Transmission over long distances involves conversion and line losses which can be reduced with local sources.
For future industries in space, it takes a lot of energy to reach the lowest Earth orbits, and generally the farther you go, the more energy and propellant is needed to get there. Sourcing materials locally is then more efficient than transporting everything from Earth. Bootstrapping production with seed factories further reduces deliveries from Earth by making the needed equipment locally. Most satellites already use locally supplied energy from solar panels and RTGs. Long distance energy transmission is not yet practical in space, aside from the free delivery provided by the Sun. Future projects which consider such distant transmission will have to account for the efficiency losses involved, when compared to local sources which avoid the losses.
Biological seeds grow into mature 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 Life Cycles with a sequence of stages. The seeds do not immediately copy themselves, but first grow into a larger entity, then make copies of the original. Besides the analogy to biology, a seed factory is not restricted to mechanical production. It can also incorporate biological elements like plant seeds to produce wood and fiber products, food, fuels, and chemical feed stocks.
A self-expanding factory may 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 - having a hierarchy of structures that enable it to function
- Metabolism - converting materials and energy into parts for itself and wastes
- Growth - building new parts faster than old ones wear out
- Adaption - ability to permanently change over time to respond to external conditions
- Response to Stimuli - immediate reaction to changes in external or internal conditions
- Reproduction - making similar or identical copies of itself
Since artificial self-expanding systems usually include people, another way to think about them is by similarity to biological social structures like ant colonies. These have multiple living components, and also the non-living parts of an ant mound. Both are needed to function as a complete system.
Manufacturing is the conversion of raw materials to finished goods, typically on a large scale. The word Factory comes from the Latin factor meaning maker. Both words refer to the Factors of Production, the inputs used to produce the desired outputs of goods and services. These include natural resources, labor, knowledge, and Capital - goods used in the production of other goods.
A factory is a purposely built place to make useful products. A seed factory is then a type of factory with particular features. We call it a factory, rather than 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. So a seed factory will generally have multiple machines. For the size and quantity of products we typically want to make, the mature set of equipment it grows to will be 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 a much larger oak tree grows. An advanced future design may completely fit within a shipping container or on a desktop. It might then be so integrated that Seed Machine would be a better description, but we don't think such an integrated design is feasible 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 woodworking and automobile repair shops. Workshops 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. For simplicity we will use the term "factory" to refer to all collections of production equipment, rather than use two names. We recognize, however, that mass production is different than per-job work.
- Economic Growth and Development
Self-expanding production systems are related to concepts of Economic Growth and Economic Development. The former is an increased rate of production of goods and services in terms of real market value, while the latter is the process by which the well-being of people is improved. Growing factories can produce more outputs over time. Therefore they contribute to economic growth to the extent those outputs have market value. Seed factories can be useful in less developed places on Earth, or regions in space which start out completely undeveloped. By providing large amounts of physical products and energy from a small starter set, they can help develop an area efficiently.
Physical outputs alone are not a complete solution to developing an area and improving well-being. That requires integrating social and political developments like health care, education, and legal and civil rights. Modern engineering processes incorporate these other features by including them as design requirements, functions, and flows. For example, waste outputs and safety hazards can impact the health of a community. Wastes and hazards can be limited by imposing suitable requirements on a factory in the design stage.
Wanting a self-expanding factory does not tell us what features should be included in the design, or how it is different from a conventional factory. Collectively we call these features and differences the Design Approach. We list key parts of the design approach here, and will go into more detail later in the book:
- Growth, Adaptability, and Integration
Traditional factories tend to be fixed in capacity for extended times, and make a limited range of products. A single design optimized for those conditions is a reasonable approach. In contrast, a seed factory can grow continuously from the starter set to larger capacities. 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 modular design become more important relative to production volume. No matter what size it is, a growing factory should be designed as an integrated whole, rather than as a collection of machines that just happen to be housed in the same building. This means considering input and output flows between different production processes, using wastes from one process as inputs to another, and recycling items where possible. These features are in addition to conventional design, which tries to optimize the individual parts and 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. Manufacturing Process Management has traditionally been implemented by people, although software to assist with parts of it have become common in recent years. With a constantly growing factory we would like to automate the process management flow as much as possible, to avoid constant rework. One way to approach this 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 automated equipment when they are capable, to people using tools and machines, or to purchasing items that cannot be made internally. New production orders are assigned backwards from final assembly to earlier steps in the production chain. This generates instructions to make more inventory or other supplies for the later steps, all the way back to raw materials and energy supplies. Expanding the factory by adding a new machine is then treated the same as any other product, as a series of steps that lead to final assembly and installation.
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 can generate different production flows, 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. So the factory would adapt to current production 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.
Modern production designs need to go beyond just optimizing production volume and cost, and account for additional goals 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. Factories must be consciously designed for this - many existing factories use scarce resources with little, if any, recycling. We can incorporate the desired features by making them explicit design requirements, and looking at overall relationships between processes and flows, both internal to the factory and with outside entities. For example, making Cement (the binder in concrete) gives off Carbon Dioxide, and plants in a greenhouse might want to consume extra carbon dioxide. It makes sense to use a waste product from one process as an input to another, but looking for ways to do so must be a regular part of the thought process during design.
- Complex Systems
Self-expanding systems can evolve from simple starter sets to higher levels of mechanization and automation, with integrated flows and continuous growth and change. They therefore become much more complex to design and build. The different processes and manufacturing steps can combine multiple elements from mechanical, electrical, chemical, biological, and other engineering fields. There are also usually multiple design goals we want to meet at the same time. The Systems Engineering process has developed since the mid-20th century to manage such complex projects. We therefore adopt systems engineering methods as part of our design process. We also borrow design tools and methods from other fields, like industrial technology and building construction where appropriate. To help manage complexity, we also don't try to design everything at once. Instead, we follow an incremental approach, starting with smaller and simpler systems, and adding to them a little at a time. One way to do this is starting with one or a few products and materials.
Aside from purely intellectual interest, a practical question is why should anyone build a self-expanding design, rather than a conventional factory? The answers include the technical, economic, and personal advantages the seed factory approach can bring. If the advantages are large enough, then people will use that approach as a widespread production method. We have identified a number of features of seed factories that we expect will be advantages, and list them below. Since such self-expanding systems have not yet been built, more work is needed to prove the advantages are real, and to quantify by how much. We hope to make progress on this question in the course of writing this book, and by designing and testing equipment for such factories in the associated Seed Factory Project.
- Integrated Automation
A self-expanding factory should be more productive and less expensive than conventional factories. The design would include an increasing variety of Smart Manufacturing elements, including computers, networks, software, automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. This reduces how much labor is needed for a given output, lowering that element of cost. An increasing number of production steps from raw materials to end products are also brought together in one system. This allows automating the transfer between steps and integrating process flows. Compared to conventional specialized factories, it eliminates the packing and shipping between them, and lowers energy and labor needed for transport. Raw materials are generally less expensive than later stage intermediate goods, especially if you produce your own equipment to extract them. Integrated flows, cheaper raw materials, and reduced transport should significantly reduce cost. Self-expansion lowers the initial capital cost of production, since you only need to purchase a subset of the total equipment. New equipment can be built as time is available between products for sale. This helps keep factory utilization high, and minimizes idle capital and overhead costs.
The level of smart manufacturing scales with the growth of the factory. In the early stages, a necessary machine or process might not be available. In that case the process flow would call for ordering a part from outside, or ask a person 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, should be able to grow to the point it can make nearly full copies of the starter equipment, with only a few items supplied from outside. After the first one is built, you can then get a nearly exponential growth in capacity. Self-expanding factories are flexible and general purpose by nature, able to make any product they are fed instructions for and within their 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. So 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 set, 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. Common 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 once unpacked. These portable forms contrast with the traditional "site-built" factory, which is fairly immobile. In outer space, portability is especially useful, because of the high cost of transportation from Earth.
A self-expanding production system does not have to exist at a single physical site, like most traditional factories. If desired, it can operate as a distributed 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 putting the people and machines in one place because that was the only feasible way to run a factory. Distributed and remote operations can produce savings in commuting time and expense, and reduced need for things like parking, cafeterias, and restrooms at production sites.
The economics of self-expanding production should be 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 grown from a seed reaches low unit cost by reduced capital, automation, integration, and using 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 not usually 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 income, and more willing to invest in themselves and the factory for the long term. If the owner-operators use the products themselves, for their own needs, they can become more self-supporting. Smart technologies may displace many conventional jobs in the future. Self-support would avoid the problems caused by job displacement.
[To Merge or move]
The second volume discusses space projects. The deep gravity well of the Earth makes access to space difficult. So relatively small seed factories which then grow to the desired output would be particularly useful. Rather than delivering everything from Earth, the factories would produce what's needed locally. Volume II first presents the science and technologies specific to space. Space projects first require getting there, and usually involve moving around afterwards, so transportation is a key technology. The space environment doesn't naturally support people or life as we know it, so habitation systems are also important. Other technologies have analogs on Earth, but need modification for the environments in space. The remainder of Volume II continues the series of applications to space projects.
- Differences from conventional factories
Conventional factories typically produce a fixed range of products, at a fixed rate, for an extended time. Factory improvements are usually paid for from sales of current products, and are usually provided from outside sources. Seed factories can make improvements this way, but they also have another option: the range of products they can make, and the rate at which they can produce them, can vary continuously over time, and much of the improvement can come from internal sources.
The "seed" is a starter set of equipment. It can be used to improve the factory in any or all of the following ways:
- Replication - making copies of its own parts so as to eventually copy an entire machine, or the entire factory.
- Diversification - making parts for new types of equipment, expanding the range of possible outputs.
- Scaling - making parts for larger (or smaller) size equipment than the starter set.
- Upgrades - adding accessories or extensions to, or better versions of existing parts and equipment.
Technology is not yet at a point where complex systems can function entirely without people. So the kind of self-improving systems and growing factories we will talk about will inherently include people. This includes designers, equipment operators, and other skills. People can improve too, gaining new skills and added experience. That kind of self-improvement can also be planned for and incorporated into the growth process.
- Seed factory features
Seed factories, and the improved factories they grow to become, can incorporate several useful features:
- They can be designed as integrated systems. This would bring together multiple production steps from raw materials and energy to finished items. Each section of the factory can produce resources needed by other sections, making it more self-sustaining as the factory grows. Integrated processes can also take waste outputs from one step, and use them as inputs for another.
- The factory layout can be localized (all in one place), distributed (sections in multiple places) with coordinated operation, or some mix of the two. This allows more options in where to locate the parts of the system and how it grows. It also gives the people involved more choice in where they work.
- The factory may start at one level of technology, such as manual tools and equipment, but upgrade over time to take advantage of modern information technology, automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. This allows starting at low cost and skill levels, while the final integrated version with modern technologies would be highly efficient.
As such factories expand, they can produce a growing variety of products for end users. As they diversify. they can also make an increasing percentage of parts for their own growth. The small size and relative simplicity of the starter set makes it low cost, while the much larger capacity it evolves to can produce a high income. Combined with the low operating cost from integrated processes and automation, this type of system could be very desirable on an economic basis.