2.1 - Technology Development
The combination of ideas that make up the seed factory concept is new, but the production processes used in such a factory have extensive history. Work is required to put them together into a coherent system, a process known as System Integration. Work is also needed to prove the potential advantages listed in section 1.0 in fact are real, by how much, and under what circumstances. Early steps towards proof include preliminary designs, mathematical models, and simulations. Those are followed by building prototypes and testing them. The process is called System Validation, and is part of taking a new technology from bare ideas to fully ready for widespread use. Where a technology stands in that process can be measured on a Technology Readiness Level scale.
In this section we identify the state of wider technologies related to seed factories, and what progress is being made in them. Next we look at current research and near term projects that are related to seed factories in particular. That includes the Seed Factory Project of which this book is a part. Last we look at the state of the concept as a whole, open questions that need more work, and a start at a plan to address these questions.
A new technology like self-expanding factories does not develop in isolation. Hardware elements like computers and sensors, and engineering fields like automation and robotics are making constant progress on their own. To understand what improvements are needed to make seed factories feasible we should consider what is already available and being worked on in related fields. A detailed list for all these fields would rapidly become out of date. So instead we point to some resources to find their current status.
The Wikipedia article on Information Technology (IT) describes it as "the application of computers and telecommunications equipment to store, retrieve, transmit and manipulate data". Such equipment is necessary in all stages of modern manufacturing, from initial design of the production equipment and products, to control of the factory operation, to communication with outside entities. It is a vast field accounting for $3.75 trillion (4.8%) of the world's US $78 trillion of measured economic activity (Gross World Product) in 2014. Amazon.com lists over 250,000 book results when searching for "information technology". Probably the most significant aspect of this field is the rapid improvement in the hardware and software elements that make up IT systems. When self-reproducing factories were studied by NASA in 1980, the estimated computing power to run them was equivalent to the fastest supercomputer in the world. Today, that same computing power is available in a smartphone or tablet, and continued improvement is expected.
The article categories listed in Wikipedia's Information Technology Portal may be used as a starting point to survey the state of this field. More detail can be found in current textbooks and trade publications.
Automation and Robotics
In the Outline of Automation article, Wikipedia defines the subject as "use of control systems and information technologies to reduce the need for human work in the production of goods and services." Other articles linked from this one can serve as an introduction to the field. Robotics is concerned with programmable machines, as distinct from machines that perform fixed operations. The two fields are closely related and have developed in parallel, mostly from the mid-20th century, when electronics and sensors reached a sufficient level of development. The field of automation is large enough that the International Society of Automation has 30,000 members, and the US Library of Congress lists 650 titles under Manufacturing Automation alone. Of particular interest for this book's subject of self-expanding production is Numerical Control of Machine Tools. Machine tools are devices that make finished parts from metal or other rigid materials by subtracting some of it from unshaped stock pieces. Also of particular interest are 3D Printers, which make parts by adding material under computer control. Since all types of machines are made from parts, these kinds of machines therefore can make some of their own parts.
In addition to the IT and automation and robotics fields mentioned above, there are numerous other branches and specialties under the larger heading of engineering. To make a start at identifying which ones are relevant to self-expanding factories, we can use sources like the Wikipedia Outline of Engineering article, or the Library of Congress Subject Classifications, particularly class "T - Technology". From those we can move to specific Wikipedia articles and their references, and to the Library of Congress' catalog holdings for the various subjects. We will defer detailed exploration of the various fields until we have some design details, and can see which ones are more relevant.
Current and Near Term Projects
The fields listed above have knowledge which can be applied to designing and building self-expanding factories in particular, or any project or product when you consider all engineering fields as a whole. Next we look at some projects which use the related technologies, and the specific Seed Factory Project.
No complete artificial self-expanding or replicating system has yet been built, unless you count an entire civilization as such a system. The work on complete systems to date has been theoretical, with a limited amount of prototyping of simple replicators. Projects which implement portions of self-expanding systems, and current research towards such systems include:
- Existing Automated Factories - There are a large number of such factories, some of which make the same type of product they use themselves in the factory. A notable example is Haas Automation, the largest machine tool builder in the western world. Two thirds of the metal cutting machine tools in their own factory were made in-house. So their production line already is substantially self-expanding. Assembly is one of the steps in production. An example of self-assembly is the International Space Station, where the large robot arm and rail system was used to install additional parts of the Station.
- RepRap 3D Printer - This machine was intentionally designed to print copies of its own plastic parts (along with other plastic parts). It cannot, however, make metal parts, motors, or other items, so is only partly self-replicating.
- Open Source Ecology - This is an ongoing project to develop a "Civilization Starter Kit", a set of 50 machines which together are intended to produce most of their own components and support most human needs. Besides the machines you would need enough farmland and labor to operate them. It is an example of an intentionally designed starter kit, with machines designed for easy fabrication. The project is notable for building and testing actual hardware, in some cases multiple versions and copies. Criticisms of the project include a "shotgun" design approach, without justifying these 50 are the correct set to build, which order they should be built, or what sizes are required. Another criticism is insufficient levels of automation for developed world use. So the machines still require a lot of labor to operate. The project appears to be making slow progress after an initial burst of efforts in 2011-13.
- NASA In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) - The current NASA Technology Roadmap identifies using local materials and energy as an important technology area for future space missions. The ISRU category, Technology Area 7.1 (section 2.2.1 of the roadmap document) includes mining and production tasks, and mentions self-replication and maintenance. These are similar ideas to what Seed Factories encompass. As of the 2017 Budget Estimate, NASA is devoting a small part of their Space Technology program funds to advanced manufacturing and ISRU, at a concept level and some experimental testing. The work is divided among several NASA centers (Ames, Marshall, and Kennedy). NASA in general focuses on individual technology elements, and lacks a strong systems analysis approach. Therefore it underestimates the leverage this technology has on their overall programs, and inadequately funds it relative to areas like launch vehicles and propulsion. They also do not consider Earth applications of the technology, because terrestrial manufacturing is not part of the agency's mission.
In 2012 a conceptual design study for a program of Human Expansion beyond Earth was started, as part of the Space Systems Engineering book Space Transport and Engineering Methods. A key technology in making such a program affordable was identified as self-expanding production. By producing fuel en-route, and other supplies and hardware from local materials, it greatly reduces the mass and cost of what needs to come from Earth. Subsequently this author (Eder) realized that the same technology has value on Earth. It can be used to make outputs unrelated to space projects, as well as to build the space hardware and transport equipment to get to space. Experience gained in such manufacturing systems on Earth can later be applied to future space projects.
By early 2013 the study work had shifted to designing Earth versions of such Seed Factories first. Since the focus was now Earth industry, and many of the details were distinct from those for space systems design, it was decided to move the contents to a separate Wikibook, the one you are currently reading. Theoretical development of new ideas is a necessary first step, but the real value in such ideas comes from putting them to practical use. So we started the Seed Factory Project to eventually go beyond the book, and develop the actual software and hardware to demonstrate the technology. If good results are obtained from the prototypes, then the next step is building full working factories.
The work during 2013 mostly focused on designs for a sustainable community of several hundred people who can meet 85% of their physical needs from a mature Personal Factory and the products it makes. The remainder would be met from outside sources. 85% is seen as a reasonable goal for a first generation design. The current state of that work was documented in section 5.0 of this book, and the in-progress working notes are in section 9.0. The Seed Factory Project is intended as an open source collaboration to develop the technology. Anyone with relevant skills is invited to contribute to the design. Specific products or physical factories built from the technology would be privately owned.
In addition to the Personal Factory concept, we also identified three other examples of Seed Factory applications, with different end points once matured. These an Industrial Factory (section 6.0), distributed World Wide Factory (section 7.0), and installations in remote and difficult locations (section 8.0). Those are not as well developed as the Personal Factory design. By doing several different designs, we hoped to evolve general design principles and methods. It should also indicate how differing end goals affect the starter set, and what areas need more research and technical improvement.
Besides specific design examples, we are also started working on general design tools. One of these is a resource model and flow network. This traces inputs and outputs from outside sources, the various factory elements, and the end users for the products. This makes sure all resources are accounted for, and the factory equipment is properly sized. By treating the mature factory as part of the product outputs, you can then recursively work back to find a starter set that leads to the chosen end point. We expect to use conventional design and engineering methods along with any new ones like resource models that we develop in the project.
2014 was consumed by funding, locating, purchasing, and starting to set up an R&D site in the southwest Atlanta area. The property includes 2.67 acres and some existing buildings, which is enough to start work. If the project grows beyond that space, there are many industrial buildings and undeveloped land in the area. 2015 went largely to project planning, high level systems engineering, setting up an office, and organizing technical files. This led to a report on extending civilization beyond Earth, using seed factories as a key technology. A key result of that work is identifying a logical sequence of project phases starting with home/hobby scale production. Each phase can produce equipment for the next phase, leading to expansion throughout the Solar System if taken far enough. In 2016 we are incorporating that plan back into the two Wikibooks, with the earlier phases described in this book, and the later space-related ones in the other book. In parallel we continue to work towards a renovated workshop to build prototypes in, building a technical team, and working with other groups and projects.
The concept of Self-Replication in the modern sense was developed in the 1950's in terms of cell mechanisms in biology, mathematical processes in software, and mechanical devices in automation and robotics. That concept involved a system making a direct copy of itself, which was nearly or exactly the same as the original. It also involved the system doing so autonomously, without human intervention or outside supplies. The concept of self-expanding systems as described in this book treats self-replication as a special case of a more general category of systems that grow. In the general case, indirect copying is possible. This is where the original unit builds new items not present in the original, and later builds a copy of the original. Variation and evolution is possible in the general case. A second generation starter kit can be different than the first generation starter kit. A collection of different units can expand and evolve over time into something quite different. Finally, autonomous, or fully automated operation, is not a requirement in the general case, some human labor and outside supplies can be used.
The concept of a self-expanding system as we develop it in this book also includes some other ideas. In list form they include:
- Self-expanding systems grow by using part of their output of parts and materials internally. The remainder of their output can be used for other purposes, like useful products to be sold or delivered to the system's owners. The percentage of output devoted to internal growth can vary over time.
- Self-expanding systems can use a starter set designed to minimize the initial size and complexity, and maximize growth rate. Later growth can emphasize other features like efficiency.
- These systems can diversify by adding new and different equipment to the starter set. The added equipment allows new products and processes, which in turn can lead to further diversification.
- These systems can scale in size by making larger versions of existing equipment. An affordable starter set can thus scale to large scale industry.
- Such systems can reproduce any percentage of their own parts from zero to 100%. Whatever items can't be made internally are supplied from outside. Outputs the system produces can be traded for rare materials and hard to make items it cannot supply internally. The percentage of self-reproduction can vary over time.
- The systems can use any mix of human labor and automation from zero to 100%, and the mix can vary with time. High levels of automation are desirable for productivity, but they should be used when sensible and affordable. Extreme levels of automation are likely to be expensive and hard to design for. Labor can be hands-on, or by remote control.
- Self-expanding systems do not have to be at a single site. A single site makes some tasks easier, but modern communications and control systems can enable a distributed production network. Factories built entirely in one place become a design choice rather than an assumption or rule.
- Self-expanding systems can adopt modular and incremental design. Modules use regular spacing and simplified interfaces, so that changes can be made more easily. Increments mean you do not have to start with all the equipment, or even have them designed yet. Individual changes and upgrades can be made when needed.
- The systems can employ new design and operations tools to manage a complex and evolving system. This includes materials and energy resource accounting to balance flows within the system, and a factory process compiler to automate production plans in the face of a constantly changing layout.
Needed Research and Development
These last two sections list what technologies and questions still need more work, and a start at a technology development plan to address that work. More details will be found in the Project Organization section of the online workbook as it is developed. The current state of the concept allows us to start working on designs for particular purposes. However, there are still many unanswered questions about seed factories in general. A research plan is needed to answer the following questions, and probably others not yet identified:
- Is existing technology sufficient to meet desired goals of self-expansion, recycling, and automation?
- -- If not, what new technology or improvements are needed?
- What should be in a particular starter set, and in what order should new equipment be added?
- -- How does the starter set and growth path depend on the scale and mature products of the mature system?
- -- How does the starter set and growth path depend on the resources and environment at a particular location?
- -- Is it better to use general purpose equipment with attachments vs. more specialized and dedicated units?
- What is the optimal path to increasing the percentage of self-production (closure) and automation?
- What is the fastest way to grow total factory capacity?
- What is the relationship among starter set complexity, physical scale, initial cost, and growth rates?
- In purely financial terms, how does it compare to conventional factories on capital and production costs?
- Does the seed factory approach better meet people's material needs than conventional specialized factories?
- How should production capacity be divided between internal maintenance and growth, outputs for the owners, and products for sale?
We do not think a single study or book can answer all these questions. A seed factory is a complex design involving multiple engineering fields. We invite others to bring their knowledge, experience, and creativity to bear on these questions and move the concept forward into the realm of practical application.
Technology Development Plan
We think the following series of tasks will contribute to answering the questions in the previous section. We also think any plan such as this will need extensive revision as more people work on the concept, develop new ideas, and a better understanding of what needs to be done:
Continue Conceptual Work
This includes the following component tasks:
- Identifying key parameters and formulas for self-expanding integrated factories, so that they can be modeled and optimized.
- Comparing the state of the art in automation, robotics, and other related fields to what is needed in this type of factory. This either establishes feasibility or defines areas for further research and development.
- Collecting designs and concepts developed by others outside this project, to see if they apply or can be adapted for use.
- Refine example applications in more detail to incorporate the self-expansion and other concepts identified above, verify they are feasible, and estimate their cost and economics.
This step takes the concept-level designs to sized and configured elements which are ready for final drawing preparation. For example, for a machine tool in the factory, a preliminary design level would specify the dimensions of the major parts, power level, accuracy, and provide layout drawings.
Where new or modified technology is identified as necessary, this task includes developing the technology. It includes theoretical concepts, analytical design, and laboratory and component level testing. Once sufficiently well tested, the technology can then be added to the portfolio available for detail design and prototyping of full factory elements. Component level work can be done at any location as an open source collaboration.
This includes designing prototype elements, setting up production and test areas for them, and the actual manufacture and test of the prototypes. Small scale prototypes of the factory elements can be built at distributed locations. Eventually large scale prototypes or linking multiple factory processes into a complete system will require a dedicated fixed location. This is especially true of collecting renewable energy and growing organic materials, which requires significant land area. The project may work with other R&D institutions, non-profits, etc. which already have facilities, if that makes progress easier. Whatever knowledge and experience gained in the project would then be distributed for the benefit of people in general. More detailed steps include:
- Design Prototype Hardware
- Design Prototype Software
- Build Conventional Workshop
- Build Prototype Test Area
- Fabricate and Assemble Prototype Hardware
- Test Prototypes
After an initial set of prototypes are developed, these can be spun off into a working factory project for real owners. Such a factory would demonstrate the complete system works as intended and satisfies the original design goals. Feedback from actual use would help in designing improvements and upgrades, and later generation versions.
The R&D work would continue in parallel with operational use, for several reasons. First, it is not likely an ideal design will be developed on the first try. Second, other locations and products besides the original ones will likely require modified designs and more testing. Third, technology in general does not stand still. Last, an initial set of hardware will not cover all the kinds of equipment that may be wanted. Continuing work would develop upgrades and new designs and feed them to factory projects when they are ready. Prototypes for different kinds of locations would either be built at those locations, or built at an existing facility and then delivered. Using the original set of prototypes to help build the later equipment can demonstrate the expansion capacity of the designs.