Section 2.1 - Self Improvement and Seed Factories
- [This Page is Currently Under Heavy Revision]
In this section we start looking more deeply into self-expanding systems in general, and the seed factory concept in particular.
We first look at the history of these processes, leading up 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. 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.
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Making several changes to the idea greatly simplifies building useful, functioning systems. The first is allowing people to assist the machines. Humans can already do many general-purpose tasks, and make more of ourselves. Second is allowing a system of people and machines to make less than all the parts needed to copy the machines. The remainder are supplied from elsewhere. Third is changing from merely copying existing parts to making new and different parts. These are assembled into new machines not in the original set. New machines are added to the set recursively. Each new machine is used along with previous ones to make the next in the series. This process continues until the expanded collection can produce a copy of the original set. More people are added as needed to operate all the machines. Some of those people then work with the copied set, and the system has now fully copied its starting point. The last change is using part of the system's output to make products for sale or trade. This pays for outside supplies of materials and parts that can't be made internally.
These changes result in the seed factory concept, as we describe it in these volumes. However, making copies of starter sets isn't the final purpose of a factory. Rather, it is a means to an end, that of providing enough capacity to make the things people need and want. The process of self-expansion by building new equipment is altered at some point to produce a desired Mature Factory. This makes finished items for people to use, rather than for itself. The set of equipment in the mature factory depends on the purposes and goals of the people who design and build it. The shift from making items for itself to making items for people
We don't yet know if a mature factory can then copy itself unassisted by people and outside supplies. That is one of the topics for Section 2.2, which discusses areas where further research and development are needed. Other topics include the best starter sets to reach a given mature state, and how seed factories should be funded, organized, and operated.
2.3 - Composing a New Solution
Previous and recent approaches have not fully solved the economic problems which already exist, and may fare worse with large-scale displacement of work by smart tools. We therefore think additional solutions are needed. We also think these solutions need to be developed now, so they can be tried and refined before future problems become too severe. We have seen how self-expansion, replication, and tool use have long existed in biology and among our pre-human ancestors. We continue to use them today to grow our food and make all the artifacts of civilization. What seems obvious to us is using these same processes, and the tools and legal structures which cause the problems, to build a solution to those very problems:
- From biology we can draw on the ideas of growth, replication, storing and modifying instructions, evolution, and ecosystems with energy and material flows.
- From technology we incorporate already accumulated knowledge and its transfer, and the accumulation and sequential making of better tools with time. Instead of seeing smart tools and other productivity-improving technologies as a problem to be fought, we can use them as part of the solution.
- Concentrated ownership and unfair terms of trade, backed by the force of governments, are underlying causes of many economic problems. People lose their livelihoods due to change or business instability. Due to unequal resources they are unable to withstand these losses, and those who have more are unwilling to help. Alternate ownership structures like cooperatives and membership societies can level these inequalities.
By combining all these ideas, we can create a new approach, one which allows people to help themselves. This kind of approach can can still work even in the face of continuing large-scale change in the future.
3.0 - The Bootstrapping Approach
Our proposed solution to the problems noted above are self-expanding production networks. These systems are built by groups of owner-operators, who bootstrap from smaller and simpler starter sets of tools. They use these tools to make finished items for themselves, for each other, and to supply products and services to other people. They also use them to make better and larger tools to upgrade their capacity. This would eventually grow to include smart tools, and making new starter sets for new groups. Since the smart tools work for the owners, they are not at risk from job insecurity or work displacement to themselves. As owners, they still benefit from what their tools produce, no matter how advanced or automated they become. The expanded network would supply all of their basic needs, such as food, shelter, and utilities, and some luxury goods. The more of their needs they can meet within the network, the less they are affected by outside economic problems. Since the network makes things, we can call it a "Maker Network" or MakerNet.
Modern society is complex. No single person can acquire all the knowledge and skills to maintain a high standard of living. Buying all the necessary tools and equipment would also be too expensive. Working in groups within a network makes it possible and affordable to live well. The needed knowledge and tools are distributed across a large number of people. Making many of their own tools and products greatly reduces the costs involved. Through numbers, they can accomplish projects too complicated or physically large for individuals. Smart tools should be usable by average people despite their complexity. The average person can't build complex devices like desktop computers or smartphones, but they can certainly use them. Similar methods should work for smart tools. They would come with instructions for installation and operation. Where needed, training and support from specialists would be available, the same way they are for wireless devices and computers today.
3.1 - Network Operation
The network as a whole is self-directed and self-improving, rather than being directed from above. Members follow their interests and abilities. They teach, learn, and improve their skills when possible. They help each other to acquire new equipment and complete larger projects. They trade products and services within the network, and sell to other people to cover things the network can't provide.
Getting Started - Founding a network requires an initial supply of labor, knowledge, funding, tools, materials, and power sources. Depending on the resources of the founding members, they may need time to accumulate enough of these items. Once several self-expanding systems are in place, their experience, resources, and production capacity can be used to help set up additional systems. A new group forming a network may include the currently employed. They can participate as a spare-time activity that supplements conventional jobs. Reasons to begin include better use of their existing resources, hobby interests, and having backup work when conventional jobs are insufficient. The under- or unemployed have more time available, but fewer resources. They may participate out of need for basic goods, to work their way out of poverty, or for self-improvement. Finally there are the retired and the wealthy who would not work themselves, but can contribute funding, work space, and other resources. These people can combine their efforts to help each other and get more done.
Not everyone will start with the skills and experience to use the different tools and equipment. They can supply basic labor or other resources to start participating. They can later gain skills and experience by working with other members. The network can also supply formal training for those who want to learn new skills, or people can learn on their own from publicly available sources, then apply that knowledge to network projects. New people may start with no tools or equipment of their own. They can accumulate them by trading labor or making their own within the network, or building up an ownership share that lets them use larger collections.
Growth - At first, the network can only make a limited range of items. It doesn't meet all the members personal needs, or have all the equipment needed to make upgraded tools. So they make a surplus of the products and services they can make with the abilities and tools they have. These are sold or traded for the parts, materials, and equipment to upgrade. Surplus production can also be sold or traded to satisfy some of their personal needs. At this stage the network can partly solve the job uncertainty problem. Whenever other work is not available, they can employ themselves more or instead to compensate. As more people join the network, and their skills and equipment improve, they can do more for themselves and need less supplied from outside. Over time, members can build or acquire their own smart tools. This lets them make things very efficiently, with less of their labor needed. At this level they can replace conventional jobs entirely. Members can transition from working for others to working for themselves.
Continuing Operation - Working members of the network can later become disadvantaged by age or misfortune, and eventually pass away. They frequently will have non-working dependents. These people are unable to operate the tools and equipment themselves. They can still benefit from an ownership share in the equipment, while new people take up the necessary work, and acquire their own share of the network. Total productivity with advanced tools should be high enough that it can support current workers plus the beneficiaries of previous ones. With very advanced tools, the machines could mainly run themselves, with occasional maintenance in exchange for a share of the outputs.
Some people may have other goals than meeting their personal needs from within the network. For example, by working within a network, they could bootstrap an independent business without having to supply all the starting capital and equipment themselves, or going to outside financing. The network allows them to get started and be productive, accumulate these items and outside customers, then set out on their own when ready.
3.2 - Seed Factories
A starter set suited for this type of self-expansion is called a Seed Factory, in the sense it is the seed from which a larger factory grows. However, a collection of simple tools cannot grow by themselves. They require other resources such as raw materials, labor, and energy to operate. Knowledge is also needed - in the form of plans and instructions for what to build, and as skills and experience of the operators so they know how to carry out the work. All of the inputs of Tools, Resources, Energy, and Knowledge are needed to make a complete system, capable of growing and copying itself. To help remember these components, we call this the "TREK Principle", after the fictional replicators of the Star Trek universe.
What the seed grows to become is called a factory because it produces items in quantity by coordinated effort. With modern transport and communications, the tools and machines don't all have to be located in the same building or have a single owner, like traditional factories. The owner/operators don't even have to be in the same place as the equipment if they can control smart tools remotely. The physical arrangement can then be more like the modern Internet: concentrated activity in data centers, and local activity in people's homes and work places. A modern Distributed Production System can have multiple machines in one place when it is more efficient to do so. But it can also have local equipment in or close to homes and workplaces when that is preferred. What makes the system as a whole function like a factory is that all of the work is coordinated by people and their Information Technology. The result is the right amount of finished items are delivered when and where they are wanted.
Design - There is no fixed design for an ideal starter set. What you need to start with depends on a number of factors. These include the economic resources and skills of the first network members, the finished products they want to start making for themselves, local environment conditions, and what supplies of tools, materials and parts are locally available. As progress is made in smart tools and other technologies, the preferred composition of a starter set will also change. The shared features that make up a seed factory are that it enables self-expansion and upgrade, can grow to to meet the owners needs, resolves their economic problems, and can partly or fully replicate the starter set.
A minimal starting point may not have any ability to produce better tools by itself. For example, a pickup truck and utility trailer can't be used upgrade themselves. However, they can be used to supply moving services. The income from that can be used to buy other tools and materials, and the vehicle used to transport them to where a workshop will be built. Production can start after enough of the workshop is finished. Eventually members can fabricate improvements, such as an enclosed box for the trailer, completing the upgrade cycle. Providing services may be a better route to get started for those with limited resources, since it can be done with limited equipment. With a larger group of people or more funding, they can shorten this fairly long path to growth, and immediately set up a working space with more advanced tools. A third approach is a new network pooling their savings until they accumulate enough for a starter set.
Whatever starting point is chosen, it needs an effective growth path. One way to do this is to select flexible tools for the starter set. For example, a single solar furnace can be used to make bricks, cast metal parts, or dry lumber, all by using suitable attachments and accessories. Another way is modular design, so the expansions can be done in smaller steps. A production building can be added to one structural bay at a time. A generic electric vehicle chassis can have robot arms or farm implements added a piece at a time.
&emspp;Designing everything at once is likely too hard for a small group just starting out. The design effort can be shared the way open-source software is developed. New designs and plans would be shared across all the groups and networks building self-expanding type systems. In fact, for smart tools part of the design will be software, for which there is a lot of experience in open-source methods. We don't know in advance the resources and skills of a group getting started, or what they want to make first. A way to handle this uncertainty is to build up a library of growth paths, and individual item plans and instructions. They can then choose their own path as needed. Previous groups can also help new ones by offering packaged starter sets, training, and other help.
Cost - A new modern Machine Tool (Figure 2) may start at $45,000, and an industrial robot can start at $30,000. To use the most advanced production methods you generally need several machines in this price range, plus a medium-sized building to house them. This is too expensive for someone of modest means. We use several approaches to bring the cost within reach. The first is to pool the resources of a group. Farm and electric cooperatives, and credit unions have long demonstrated that ordinary people can do larger projects when working together on a part-time basis. The cost of more expensive or less frequently used tools can be divided in a similar way among network members. More expensive equipment can be individually owned, then loaned or access provided to others, or the products traded within the network. This way the whole group can benefit from their use. Some areas have community workshops called by various names like Hackerspaces or makerspaces. These already have collections of tools and equipment that can be used by members or the public. They can serve as starting points to grow from.
Second, smaller and simpler versions of most tools exist, some in kit form to save even more. Industrial-grade machines are designed to run continuously. Home and hobbyist-grade ones are more lightly built and have smaller motors, so they cost less. They can be adequate in the early growth stages. Third is the bootstrapping approach. The first set of tools are used to supply products and services. The income is then used to buy additional/larger/better ones. The current set of tools can also be used to directly make new tools, in a planned series of expansions and upgrades. To the extent tools can be made, rather than bought, it lowers their initial cost by substituting the group's own work.
Feasibility - We know starter sets in general are possible. Civilization as a whole grew from smaller and simpler sets of tools. Settlers in new areas historically brought along a set of tools to start with. They also typically imported more tools for a while, until they could make their own. Our approach repeats this pattern. Modern homesteading and do-it-yourself projects show people can partially make what they want using their own tools. Factories that make robots and machine tools already use their own products to make more of the same types. This shows replication of complex tools is possible. What we don't know are the optimal starter sets and growth paths to reach particular goals, given finite resources, modern technology, available designs, and what is likely to be possible in the near future. More work is needed to identify the best paths, prove them by building working examples, and build up experience with this approach.
Although we don't yet know everything about self-expanding systems, we do have some beliefs. One is that self-expanding production networks cannot function in isolation unless they are very advanced. They will have some level of interaction and trade with the rest of society. We also don't think bootstrapping can effectively be done by one person, because of the range of skills and amount of time required. But these are beliefs, and not yet proven.
Necessary Inputs - We have noted that an initial supply of tools, resources, energy, and knowledge are needed, before people can effectively provide products and services. In developed countries such as the US, a basic supply of these items is widely available at low cost. Many households already have some basic tools, especially if they are home-owners. If they follow a hobby they typically have better or more specialized ones. People who work in mechanical and construction trades tend to have better tools for their jobs, and people who work in manufacturing have access to even better ones. Used tools can be obtained from online markets and exchanges such as eBay or Craigslist. They can also be found locally from thrift and pawn shops, flea markets, and yard sales. New tools are more expensive, but widely available locally and online. Getting enough tools to get started should be feasible even for low income people.
Raw materials and energy are also widely available at low cost, even though many people don't realize it. A typical acre of land (multiply by 2.5 for hectares) contains 100,000 tons of soil and rock in the top ten meters, worth about a million dollars at bulk quarry prices. It receives about 875 MWh/year of net usable solar energy, worth more than $40,000/year at wholesale rates. Outside large cities, US cropland is available for $1,000-13,000/acre ( USDA, 2017 ), and undeveloped land for even less. These are far less than their resource value. What is needed is an effective way to use these resources, which self-expanding networks can provide. In developed areas, materials and energy can of course be purchased. But surprising amounts of materials are available second-hand, as scrap, or as discards. Self-built solar power can be very low cost, and free to use. Finally, essentially all the world's knowledge is now available online, in addition to traditional sources like books in libraries. These can usually be accessed for free. Many people already have skills and experience they can share in a network with people who don't.
3.3 - Advantages
The bootstrapping approach has a number of advantages over other solutions. It leverages a wider range of inputs than money-based income transfer programs. People who are able, but not fully employed, have a reserve stock of their own labor. This approach can put their available time to good use. Highly automated production can turn widely available resources into useful items at low cost. In purely economic terms, this approach may have higher rates of return than conventional investments. At the same time it can provide more economic security, a higher quality of life, and fewer environmental impacts than current methods. It does not change the fundamentals of trade and private ownership, so it can be implemented within the current economic and legal framework. If most of people's basic needs can be met with highly automated production, it also frees up their time to pursue their interests, rather than a job they may not like.
We think this approach is better than alternatives like Basic Income transfer programs. Those can't scale to a future where most jobs are replaced by smart tools, because there won't be enough funding sources left. Government-run transfer programs are subject to political meddling, and therefore uncertainty. There will always be some who resent being taxed to give "free money" to others. Whoever is taxed to fund such programs will likely object and seek ways to avoid them. Self-reliance is likely better in terms of general acceptance, and people's own motivations and psychology. A sector of society will always need outside help, so the need for support programs will not go away. But we should consider bootstrapping as an approach to provide that help rather than traditional cash transfers. For example, public or charitable programs could loan out starter sets or individual tools until a new group or network is self-supporting.
3.4 - Some Example Systems
We don't yet know everything about this approach. However, we know enough to present some examples of starter sets and how they can grow. Specific examples can also clarify some of the ideas presented above. The first example begins with a single product or service category, then expands to other categories over time. This is more suited to smaller groups with fewer skills and resources. The second one begins with a more complete starter set of equipment. It is more suited to a larger group with more skills and resources.
Single Product Starter
This route can begin with a single person or a small group. They start with a single category of product or service. Examples are sewing, carpentry/woodworking, or light household moving for hire. These don't require a lot of tools, and many people already have a sewing machine, some hand and portable power tools, or a pickup truck to get started with. Sales outside the network are used to buy better tools and materials in their chosen category, then later used to expand to other categories as more people participate. Members also trade within the network and help each other with projects. People are unlikely to fully support themselves when starting this way. They will need conventional jobs or other outside support until the network has grown enough.
We can list starter categories, and the later expansions, according to the type of materials or services provided. Within each category they would start with projects that need the fewest tools and skills, and are nearest to finished products. As tools accumulate and skills improve, they can start working back towards lower cost materials and larger scale of operation. Using woodworking as an example, buying finished furniture from a store doesn't require any skills or tools, but has the highest cost. A shelf unit kit may require assembly, but all the parts are supplied. You only need simple tools to complete it. Making a set of shelves from bought lumber requires more tools and skills, and shaping and assembling more complex furniture would need even more. Finally, cutting trees, milling the resulting logs into lumber, and drying the wood requires the most tools and skills, and presumes a high volume of products. But sourcing wood directly from trees has the lowest cost of materials.
New people joining the network can follow their interests. They can start in other categories and follow similar upgrade paths. As more categories are added, members can start to support each other. For example, people doing concrete and metalworking can help expand a woodworking shop, and in return the woodworkers can supply furniture and cabinetry to the others. If a network can grow to cover all the main categories, it can supply a major fraction of people's needs, and further self-expand in an effective way. Our example list of categories, with some starting points and upgrade steps includes:
- Basic Tools - These include basic hand tools, like screwdrivers, hammers, and wrenches, and portable power tools like an electric drill, circular saw, or reciprocating saw. Besides household maintenance, basic tools are used to maintain other classes of equipment, so this category is listed first.
- Light Crafts - This includes small-scale crafts like jewelry, candle & soap making, and fine arts, which don't require large equipment or work space. They are distinguished from basic tools by needing specialized ones for a given craft.
- Carpentry & Woodworking - These use some of the same tools as the first category, but differ in the size and complexity of the projects. Additional tools like ladders, ropes, sawhorses, chisels, routers, table saws, and woodworking benches can be bought, found used, or self-made, and added one item at a time.
- Stone & Concrete - This can start with hand-laying of found stones, which needs very few tools, and using bagged pre-mix concrete that needs water and a few tools to use. Larger projects can add tools for shaping stones, portable mixers, making forms and casting blocks, and shaping and placing concrete reinforcement.
- Metalworking - Basic hand and portable tools can shape and drill thinner metal pieces. Heavier items require a furnace to heat and soften the metal, then hammers, stakes, anvils, or presses to shape. Casting requires higher temperatures, crucibles, and molds. Much of these can be self-made. More advanced machining needs special tools, that can be added one at a time.
- Glass & Ceramics - Cutting glass can be done with simple tools. Shaping glass and firing ceramics requires high temperatures, starting with devices like gas torches and firepits, moving up to more advanced furnaces.
- Polymers - Small plastic items can be molded with light craft tools, or shaped with woodworking equipment. Complex items need a 3D printer or laser cutter. These are expensive/complex for starting out, but commercial services or community makerspaces can be used to make individual items.
- Electrical & Electronics - Electrical may start with simple repair, like replacing motors and cords, and work up to larger wiring projects. Electronics projects can begin with connecting pre-made items, like assembling an entertainment system or desktop computer, then moving to more complex ones involving custom circuit boards and programming.
- Coatings & Printing - Household painting and finishing furniture can start with just a few tools and supplies. More complex screen, spray, and paper printing methods can be added later.
- Fiber & Fabric - Hand sewing can be done with almost no investment in tools. Consumer sewing machines are widely available at low cost, and upgrades to industrial machines, cutting & sewing tables, and other equipment can be incremental. Working with other materials, such as leather or fiber-reinforced plastic, can also be added later.
- Assembly & Construction - Mechanical assembly and welding can be started on a small scale, as can installation of items made by others, such as cabinets and appliances. Larger construction projects would go beyond carpentry and concrete to include earth-moving, utilities, and crane work. These require larger equipment, so they are normally supplied by specialist companies, but smaller machines are available to start from.
- Agriculture & Forestry - This can start with small-scale home gardening and animal-raising. Community gardens and farms require more land and tools, and people's time to get started, but can be expanded in steps. In suitable climates, growing trees may not require any work, just allowing them to grow. Harvesting can start with smaller bushes, saplings, and branches, and don't require a lot of tools, then gradually moving to larger size trees and quantities.
- Materials Processing - Most people are familiar with cooking food, which follows steps like mixing and heating, and they already have the equipment for it. Other materials can also be processed by following a series of steps. These convert a source material into a desired finished material by mechanical, thermal, chemical, or electrical means. A very simple example is air-drying of wood from the natural state, which is too wet, until it is dry enough for construction or furniture. This category can start with such simple steps, adding new ones individually. The tools and equipment for each step are acquired or made as needed.
Each of these categories will need other resources besides tools. These include:
- Knowledge & Plans - Most people start with a level of general knowledge gained from early education. Books, online information, classes, and working with more experienced people can add specialized knowledge as needed. For anything beyond the simplest projects, plans and instructions for how to accomplish them are very helpful. These can be found for individual items, but custom projects and putting them in the right order is needed when a group is attempting larger and more complex tasks.
- Work & Storage Space - This can start with a spare room, garage, or basement. Later additions can include out-buildings added to current homes, leased or purchased commercial buildings, or undeveloped land which is then improved. Storage equipment can start with small tool boxes, drawers, and shelf units, and upgraded over time.
- Power & Lighting - These can start with conventional wall outlets and natural and artificial lighting. Portable power can be supplied from devices plugged into vehicles, portable generators, batteries, and dedicated engines. Solar and wind can provide more power for dedicated locations.
- Transportation - Most people have access to some sort of transportation, and can share the cost of larger transport within a network. Boxes and containers can often be found for free, or self-made for specific needs.
- Parts & Materials Supply - These can be purchased at retail to start with, and often found used or for free. As activity and tools increase, the network can obtain items earlier in the supply chain, eventually sourcing from raw materials.
Full Starter Set
A larger group, or one with more resources, can begin with a more complete starter set. They are able to immediately start making a significant percentage of new attachments and accessories for the original set, and making or buying complete new tools to upgrade their capacity. A full starter set is planned as a unit, but may not be acquired all at once. Our example includes eight main item types, with suitable accessories and attachments. The starter set would include one of each type, and add more units and different types with time. This list is intended for general-purpose industry, but it not unique. Other starter sets can be designed to meet different needs.
- (1) Building and Support Equipment - Most tools and machines need some protection from the weather, especially the electronics of smart tools. People also benefit from sheltered work and design areas with good lighting. Storage areas are generally needed in addition to the workshop spaces. To accommodate self-expansion, the building can be a modular design. A simple example is to use shipping containers (Figure 3) as a basic module. They are weather-proof, and can be used directly as work-spaces. They can later be arranged and stacked to form the walls of a larger building which has a roof spanning between them. Another approach is a more conventional steel-clad industrial building, where one end is a temporary wall. Additional structural bays can be added one at a time to lengthen the building, moving the temporary wall as each bay is completed. Support for the main tools and machines would include secondary ones for grinding, sharpening, and measuring, and portable and hand tools for maintenance.
- (2) Modular Robots - This includes both stationary and mobile robots, driven by electric or hydraulic power. The robots are modular in design, so their configurations can change according to different needs. The stationary version uses jointed arms (Figure 4) and end tools, mounted on a fixed base or rails. The mobile version starts with a chassis that functions like a farm tractor, providing basic power and motion. A variety of attachments can be mounted on the chassis or pulled behind it, such as wagons, lifting arms and buckets, jointed robot arms, and specialty end tools and implements. Mobile versions can be used internally within a building, or outdoors for construction or farming work. One attachment would be a "manual control module", to allow people to control the machine directly. This is useful for unique tasks when programming the robot isn't worth doing.
- (3) Solar Furnace - Powered tools and machines require energy to function, and many processes require heat. A solar furnace can supply both. A collection of mirrors are mounted on an axis to follow the Sun (Figure 5) and focus the energy on a stationary point. Replaceable targets can be mounted at the focus for tasks like making bricks, melting metals, producing steam to generate electricity, or lower intensity heat for other processes. Concentrator-type solar cells at the focus can produce electricity. The cells are not likely to be made internally, but they only represent a small part of the furnace, so that may be acceptable. Energy can be stored by directing the heat to an insulated rock bed, then extracted later as needed. Multiple copies of the furnace make it modular, and can then be assigned different tasks. Later versions can be built larger than the first one.
- A solar furnace can be mainly built from metal and glass parts. It can be designed to melt scrap of both types to cast new parts. So it can be largely self-reproducing from low cost materials. Large amounts of energy are needed for many industrial processes, so this may be a key path for self-expanding systems.
- (4) Bridge Mill - This is one of two basic Machine Tools which cut or shape metals and other rigid materials. The Horizontal Bridge moves vertically on fixed posts, and the tool mount moves horizontally along the bridge. A sliding table moves underneath to provide the third axis of motion. In our version, there are four tool mounts, two on the front and two on the back sides of the bridge. This allows mounting up to four robot arms or various other tools at the same time. The bridge extends past the posts and table to tool-changers at the sides, so they can be changed automatically. The rails that support the sliding table can be made as long as needed. New tables can be brought in with new parts to work on, or multiple tables can support very long work-pieces, sliding them under the bridge to be worked on. The tool mounts and tables can provide additional rotation or angled motion axes for more complex parts.
- (5) Horizontal Lathe - The bridge mill is better suited to rectangular or irregular parts. A lathe is better suited to round or symmetric parts, so we include it as the second basic machine tool. The simplest version of a lathe has a rotating spindle and drive motor (Figure 6) with a chuck to hold one end of a work-piece. A tailstock mounted on rails supports the other end of the piece. Cutting tools are applied as the piece rotates to generate round parts. Halting the rotation at known angles and moving a cutter along a plane can generate faceted sides. In our version, the lathe would have four rails, such as the Weiler V-Series. The second pair of rails allows multiple cutting heads carrying different tools to move independently into place as needed. Tool changers are mounted above the cutting heads to swap out different tools or replace worn ones.
- (6) Hydraulic Press - A hydraulic press can perform tasks like pressing shapes using dies and molds, shearing, rolling, bending, and shaping. One or more hydraulic pistons force the upper plate down, while several posts keep it parallel to the lower plate (Figure 7). The upper and lower plates are slotted to accept different inserts, and side supports can feed long objects for shearing, rolling, or bending. Thin or soft materials can be pressed at room temperature, while thick metal can be pressed hot, a process called Forging. In some cases the inserts would be heated, but they must use a higher melting material than the piece being worked.
- (7) Process Plant - A variety of materials are typically needed in complex machines. Such materials are typically not found in the needed form in nature. They can be bought from others, but that increases the costs and makes a system less able to self-expand. A large number of Production Processes are available to convert raw materials to the desired form. According to what is needed for later production, individual process steps, known as Unit Operations, are used to form complete process flows (Figure 8}. All the process flows taken together, some of which may share steps, make up the process plant. An example flow for wood would include cutting the trees, bringing the logs to the sawmill, cutting the logs into pieces, and stacking them to allow drying. Each unit operation needs its own equipment to carry it out, and often energy and other inputs. For general industry, the process plant might take in scrap metal, use the solar furnace to melt it, cast basic shapes, then trim and grind as needed to feed the Mill, Lathe, and Press.
- (8) Electrical Shop - Machines and tools that use power, especially smart tools, need a variety of electrical or electronic parts. This includes wires, insulators, motors, generators, batteries, switches, relays, transformers, resistors, capacitors, inductors, filaments, circuit boards, and microelectronics. The Electrical Shop produces and assembles as many of these items as is feasible. It accepts some parts and materials made elsewhere in the factory. Some items too complicated or difficult to make internally, such as modern computer chips. These items are purchased, but they make up a relatively small part of the factory, and used equipment or items people already own may be sufficient.
4.0 - Building the Future
The examples in section 3 are aimed at solving existing economic problems of individuals, which may be made worse by increasingly smart tools. Since they are intended to meet personal needs we call it Personal Production. But this isn't the only way such systems can be used. Self-expanding networks that bootstrap from starter sets can be applied at all levels of complexity and scale, just like living things range from microscopic bacteria to entire ecosystems. Unlike biology, a network that begins with people and their knowledge can do more than just copy their tools. People are the original "smart tools", and can change and adapt. Once a network is put on a growth path, it can add new items not in the original plans, upgrade to higher levels of complexity, and expand to larger scales of operation. It can also change course and make an entirely different set of products and services, if that is what the owners want. Finally, existing networks can also produce new starter sets with different purposes than the original, and spawn whole new growth patterns.
In this section we will look at some of the other ways these kinds of networks can be used. As worthy and interesting as these other projects may be, we don't think we are ready to jump in and start building more advanced versions of such networks yet. We think more basic research and development is needed, and gaining experience with smaller and simpler examples first. We finish the section with some final thoughts of a more philosophical than engineering nature, and some ideas that need more work.
4.1 - Beyond Economic Problems
Increasing Scales - A network of people working together can keep upgrading and expanding their equipment, and adding more people. This can take them beyond personal goods and services, into the small business and commercial scales of operation. This goes beyond meeting their own needs, to meeting the needs of people and businesses outside their network. The larger network will tend to include people in multiple locations, so we call it Distributed Operations. The final growth step is to industrial scale, reaching more widespread markets and at the most efficient levels of operation. As activity grows to larger scales, it will tend to become more specialized. This is because it gets harder to find places large enough, or with all the right conditions, for multiple industrial-scale operations. Although physically separate, the various locations can still support and supply each other as part of a network. Just because part of a network has grown to larger scales, it does not mean the whole network has to. It can include a mix of activity ranging from small to large sizes.
Harder Environments - All of the previous examples assume moderate environments with some level of existing development. These are the kinds of places where most people already live and work. But these places only encompass about 13% of the Earth's surface, and on average only a small distance above and below the surface. Highly automated and low cost production could make it affordable to live and work in harder environments, and use more of the material and energy resources found there. Difficult environments include open waters on oceans and lakes, very cold or ice-covered areas, hot and dry desert regions, very wet and swampy areas, high altitudes, depths underwater and underground, and places which are currently too remote and undeveloped to use. Different starter sets would be needed for all these different conditions, but they could be produced by previous generation automated factories in more moderate locations.
The hardest environments are beyond the Earth in outer space. In addition to other difficulties encountered on Earth, you add problems like lack of gravity, air to breath, and high radiation levels. The difficulty, cost, and distance involved in space projects is in fact the reason bootstrapping from an automated seed factory was first considered. But since there isn't yet experience in such projects, we think it makes sense to start on Earth, where conditions are easier, and leave space for last. Like harder environments on Earth, the starter sets for space locations would be produced in previous factories in easier places, then shipped to where they need to be. Once delivered, there are vast amounts of local energy and raw materials available to supply their growth. As with places on Earth, some items are too hard to make locally, or use rare ingredients. These would continue to be supplied from elsewhere.
A Better Future - Future civilization can develop along utopian or dystopian lines. We believe where we end up is a choice, not an inevitability. If we use them wisely, smart tools and self-expanding systems can let us build the kind of future we want to live in. First, by supplying basic needs like food, shelter, and utilities, people would no longer be subject to the kinds of economic problems and uncertainties we listed above. Highly efficient production would free up people's time, and allow them to do what is interesting, rather than what is necessary to pay the bills. Low cost production can enable high levels of renewable energy and recycling. This would reduce or reverse environmental problems. People would have more choices of where and how to live. The development of space would greatly increase available energy and materials. It could offload intensive industries from our planet, further improving the environment. I personally see this as a much more optimistic future than our present world.
4.2 - Some Final Thoughts
Self-Reliance and Personal Contact - Modern humans are a migratory species. We originated in Africa and have spread to all parts of the world with reasonable climates, and even some that are unreasonable. During our migrations we necessarily had to use local resources, and carry or make starter sets of tools to make a life in these new places. We relied on ourselves and the network of people around us to do these things. With the advent of industrialization, large cities, and large organizations, we have gotten out of the habit of relying on ourselves and people we know. We have become dependent on distant farmers and factories to supply our daily goods. Shareholders we have never met own the companies where we work to afford those goods. This puts us at the mercy of forces beyond our control. We can be told "sorry, we don't make that product any more", or "you've been replaced by a robot", with no recourse from those decisions. It is easier to treat workers as disposable, and make things they don't really need or want, if you don't know them. We think a return to some level of working for ourselves and dealing with people we know would be an improvement.
Artificial Life - The combination of smart tools and self-expanding systems can be considered a form of artificial life. In principle, a collection of sufficiently smart tools can grow unassisted by adding to their number, and reproduce by copying the original collection. Self-growth and reproduction are properties usually associated with life. If the smart tools require people to do some of the tasks, we can consider it assisted growth and reproduction. Alternately we can consider the people plus their tools as a higher level ecosystem which can grow and copy itself. The individual tools and machines are then analogous to the organelles of Eukaryote cells. Uncontrolled growth and reproduction can cause problems similar to biological plagues and cancers. Some thought should go into avoiding such problems, and how to deal with them.
[Moved from 2.0]
3.0 - Seed Factory Concept Evolution
We can combine a number of these concepts and processes from nature and human culture into a new type of self-expanding and upgrading production system. Purposely designed starter sets which evolve to larger and more complex systems is the core idea, so we refer to the whole collection as "Seed Factory" technology. The complete collection includes more than just this feature. Other important ones that we include under the Seed Factory name, and their backgrounds, include:
Replication in the general sense has always existed in biology. In technology we often make identical copies of products, but Machine Replication, or Self-Replicating Machines, as a term is reserved for machines or factories which can make complete copies of themselves. The idea of machine replication was evident as soon as control theory and automation became practical. It got serious theoretical study in the same period, the mid-20th century, starting with work on Reproducing Cellular Automata by John Von Neumann. A 2004 book by Freitas and Merkle, Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines thoroughly reviews the literature for replicating systems to that point.
A 1982 NASA report, Advanced Automation for Space Missions (AASM), introduced the concept of a replicating factory for use on the Moon (Figure 2.1). Their approach was to copy the original factory hardware multiple times, using local materials and energy. Once enough copies had been made, the combined production capacity would turn to making an unspecified end product, to support NASA goals. The AASM study introduced the term Seed Factory to mean the first unit of the factory delivered from Earth to the Moon. In this book we use the name for a more general concept of a starter set which can expand by multiple methods besides directly copying its own parts.
Due to low communications bandwidth from Earth at that time, the AASM concept of a Lunar factory assumed it would be fully automated. The resulting computer requirements, estimated at 2 GB memory and 35 GB storage, were far beyond what was available at the time of the study (1980). The seed factory was also assumed to be delivered as a complete functioning unit to the Moon, with an estimated mass of 100 tons. This was beyond the delivery capacity of any lander at the time, and still is today. Lastly, there was no pressing need to build things on the Moon. For these reasons the concept was not developed further.
The study considered availability of raw materials, and processing methods, but did not do a full resource flow accounting of all materials, energy, and data. The first spreadsheet program, Visicalc, had just been introduced in 1980, and Computer Simulation and Numerical Analysis Software were at a relatively early stage of development. The tools available then could not have handled such a complex design. The study also neglected to consider Earth applications of the idea, because NASA's primary goals do not include improving manufacturing on Earth. Despite these shortcomings, the AASM study is probably still the best attempt to date of describing a fully replicating factory.
The AASM study assumed full replication of a starter factory. It did not consider starting with a simpler subset and adding new equipment over time. Requiring full replication from the start makes the initial hardware both more complicated to design, and physically larger. Even if you were able to make all the parts needed to replicate, from an engineering standpoint it might not make sense. It is likely that a given location will not have certain rare raw materials. In the case of the Moon, a 1986 study of building solar power satellites found 98% could be sourced from there, but the other 2% had to come from Earth. It is also likely that some parts, like computer chips, are very difficult to make yourself, compared to simply buying them. Therefore a practical design will most likely fall short of 100% replication. These conditions are likely to be true for any location, not just the Moon. Given that some materials and parts would be imported in an optimized design, it is then a small conceptual step to allow the percentage of imported items to vary by time.
A small starter set is able to make some of the parts for new and different equipment, and the balance has to be imported. Once you have added the new equipment, you can now make a wider range of parts, and can therefore contribute to making an even wider range of equipment. This Diversification continues until you you can make the full range of desired products, or reach the full set of equipment which are practical to use. When a factory reaches these full capacities we call it Mature. Compared to a conventional factory, which has the full set of equipment at the start, you begin with a smaller set of equipment, plus a set of design information for the rest. With modern data storage, it costs very little to hold a large amount of information. The seed factory with a subset of equipment is therefore a less expensive way to start production. A fully expanded factory can also end up larger and more capable than what is needed for Practical Replication, i.e. the ability to copy all the parts that are practical to make internally. This happens if certain production processes or materials are not needed for replication, but are used for other end products. So the set of equipment can start well below the ability to output copies of itself, and grow to a level well above it.
One class of new equipment is extensions or attachments for existing equipment. For example, extension rails or a larger bed would allow a CNC mill to make larger parts. Conventional farm tractors are examples of machines which can be used with a multitude of different attachments. A modular vehicle chassis built for factory use could also accept a range of attachments, as could a basic robot arm. Items like assembly jigs, holding fixtures, molds, and custom cutting bits can make a basic machine more flexible. One criterion for choosing a member of the starter set is then how many of these extensions you can use with it, and thus how many different tasks it potentially can do. We call this feature Flexibility. The more flexible the starter machines are, the fewer of them you need for a useful set.
A simplified starter set is one way to reduce the complexity and cost of starting up a new factory. Scaling of machine sizes is another way to reduce cost, and was not considered in the AASM study. It should be evident that machines of a given size can make parts for larger machines. If not for that, our civilization would never have been able to make the larger machines that now exist, like 400 meter long cargo ships. One way to make larger items is by assembling them from smaller pieces, such as by welding or bolting. A common example is that most buildings are made from many smaller parts. Another method besides assembly is to use machines which are open-ended in at least one axis. An example is a rolling mill to make steel shapes. The rolling process does not limit the length of the metal parts you feed through it. It is only limited by how much room you have on either side. An example in two and three dimensions is casting of concrete structures. The forms, mixing, and pouring equipment can be mobile, working on different parts of a structure in series. The resulting structure, such as an airport runway, can be many times larger than the equipment.
Scaling can also be used to make smaller and more accurate devices, but for cost reasons, it will more often be used to produce larger machines. In concept, you can start with whatever size machines are convenient. You can use these machines to make parts for larger machines of the same type, or for larger machines of new types. In turn, the second generation machines are used to make parts for even larger machines, until you reach whatever final size you wanted. In theory you could start with microscopic machines, but for practical reasons there is some lower bound to start from. Whatever operations and maintenance are not yet automated would require human interaction. They then need to be at a scale people can work with. More generations of scaling require more time to grow. They also require some redesign for each generation, since not all parts of a system scale equally. Finally, the design effort for the number of machines in a factory is relatively constant no matter what size they are. So the savings in materials from starting smaller will eventually become negligible relative to the total design cost. These factors in combination will favor a convenient and inexpensive starting size.
- Technology Level
The final assumption made by the AASM study was full automation. This was because with 1980 communications it was not possible to remote control even one factory on the Moon, let alone 1000 copies. We don't need to make that assumption for the current seed factory concept. For one thing, certain tasks are either too hard to automate at present, or are done so rarely it is not worth trying to automate them. For another, trying to automate everything at the start requires more equipment and more design work. Lastly, modern communications has improved enough that remote control is quite possible over long distances. Instead of assuming full automation, we instead assume you start with whatever is a practical level. CNC machine tools and 3D printers are examples of existing equipment that are automated, so they are good candidates to start with. Over time you can add things like robots and automated inventory systems to increase the amount of automation in the factory. Since you are able to partly make your own equipment, adding these later will be less expensive than trying to buy it all at the start. Starting with partial automation allows you to defer the design work of the more complex automation until later. This lowers the cost to get started.
In the extreme limit, you could start with no tools whatsoever, and bootstrap making crude tools by hand. Given modern civilization, this is not necessary. For a particular project, it will make sense to start with some level of hand and power tools, larger stationary and mobile machines, and smart tools. The purchase of such already-designed and in-production items will be worth the time and labor savings over starting from scratch.