2.1 - Research and 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 fbeing ready for widespread use. Where a technology stands in that process can be measured on a Technology Readiness Level scale.
As a start towards integration and validation, we can identify existing knowledge and experience which can be applied to seed factories. We can also look at what progress is being made in these related areas of knowledge. After general areas of knowledge and experience, we can look at specific research and near term projects related to seed factories. This includes the Seed Factory Project of which this book is a part. Finally we can look at the state of the seed factory concept itself, and open questions about it that need more work. From the knowledge that isn't already available or being developed elsewhere, and the unanswered questions about seed factories, we can start to develop plans for needed research and development. Additional R&D needs will emerge in the course of using the seed factory concept to particular projects.
At this point, we can only make a start at at R&D planning and integration and validation of the seed factory ideas, so this section is preliminary.
Existing Knowledge and Experience
A new technology like seed factory-type 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 for seed factories, we first consider what is already available and being worked on in related fields. A detailed status report for all these fields would rapidly become out of date. So instead, we point to some resources to find their current state of knowledge and development. As work on seed factories progresses, we expect to update the information from other fields, and adjust our own work as needed.
We expect self-expanding production systems to evolve towards highly integrated and self-operating states. Therefore the computers, software, and communications areas of Information Technology (IT), and the automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence areas we refer to as Smart Tools are especially relevant. However many other areas of science and technology are also important.
Information Technology, or "IT" is "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, with total spending projected at $3.5 trillion in 2017, or 4.5% of the world's US $77.8 trillion of measured economic activity (Gross World Product). Amazon's website lists over 125,000 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.
Smart Tools are tools and machines which replace some part of human control with hardware and software. It includes the fields of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI). Automation is the "use of control systems and information technologies to reduce the need for human work in the production of goods and services." Links from the "Outline of Automation" article on Wikipedia can serve as an introduction to the field. Robotics is concerned with programmable machines, as distinct from machines that perform a fixed set of operations. The two fields are closely related and have developed in parallel since the mid-20th century, when electronics and sensors reached a sufficient level of development. Artificial Intelligence in general refers to machines which mimic the functions of the human mind. For the purpose of this book, we are concerned with the functions used to produce goods and services.
The field of automation is large enough that the International Society of Automation has over 40,000 members, and the US Library of Congress lists over 700 titles under Manufacturing Automation alone. Of particular interest for this book's subject is Numerical Control of Machine Tools, known as NC or CNC (Computer Numerical Control). Machine tools make finished parts from metal or other rigid materials by subtracting some of it from unshaped stock pieces. Since machine tools are themselves mostly made of metal parts, then such tools can be used to make more of themselves. Also of particular interest is 3D Printing, which make parts by adding material under computer control. These kinds of machines therefore can make some of their own parts, to the extent they are made of the same kind of materials they can print.
Since the mid-20th century, when the term "robotics" was coined and the first modern programmable robot developed, the field has rapidly grown. There are now a number of Organizations and Companies involved with robotics, and the IEEE Robotics & Automation Society has over 13,000 members in 120 countries. Amazon's website lists over 23,000 books related to robotics, and the Library of Congress lists about 1500 items with the primary subject of Robotics (classification TN210.2 to 211).
The AI field was founded in the mid-20th century, but progress was slow in the 1970's to 1990's (the AI "Winter") due to difficulties with practical applications and available computing power. Since then theoretical, cross-discipline, and hardware improvements have led to rapid progress in the field. The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence now has over 4,000 members, and Amazon lists about 30,000 titles about AI & Machine Learning. The Library of Congress catalogs nearly 10,000 items under "Artificial Intelligence" and "Machine Learning".
Other Science and Technology Fields
In addition to the information technology and smart tools fields mentioned above, there are many other branches of science and technology which are useful in designing and building self-expanding production systems. Among the sciences are geology, chemistry, and agriculture, for understanding of raw materials, processing them, and growing organics. Among the technology fields are construction, mechanical and electrical engineering, transportation, mining, and manufacturing. These fields are not the only ones that may prove useful.
Science and technology together are enormously broad subjects. When working on seed factory-related projects, we can start to identify which parts are relevant using Wikipedia's outlines of the Natural and Physical Sciences and Technology and Applied Sciences, and the many individual articles and references linked from them. Another starting point is the Library of Congress' Subject Classification Outlines, particularly classes Q, S, and T. From those outlines we can identify more specific subjects, and then specific titles using the Library's online catalog. Beyond online and published information, it is very useful to contact individuals working in the particular fields, and get their help identifying the current state-of-the-art.
Related Projects and Technology
The broad fields of knowledge noted above can be used to design and build self-expanding factories, or for any project or product which those factories can in turn be used. A smaller subset of the work in these fields is more closely related to our subject, and the Seed Factory Project in particular is entirely devoted to it, so we look at those next. This list does not yet identify all related work.
An entire civilization, including the people in it, may be considered self-expanding and self-replicating, and genetically engineered organisms which can replicate have been produced. Software systems are capable of copying themselves, given suitable supporting hardware. So far as we know, non-biological systems capable of full self-expansion and replication of both hardware and software have not yet been built, nor have hybrid systems including both biological and non-biological elements. An example of a hybrid system would be a farm, whose plants and animals can replicate, but whose buildings and equipment could also copy themselves. Work on complete systems has been largely theoretical to date, with a limited amount of prototyping of simple replicators.
People have copied tools using other tools throughout our history. For example, a woodworker can use an existing workbench to make another workbench. But that is the person doing the copying, not the tools copying themselves. Some projects where partial self-expansion and replication are involved, or research towards such systems include:
- Existing Automation and Robotics - There are a large number of automated factories, some of which make the same type of product they use in the factory themselves. 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. The machine tools they build are computer-controlled, and often run unattended, so their production line is substantially self-expanding. Assembly is one of the steps in production. An example of partial self-assembly is the International Space Station, where a large robot arm was used to install additional parts of the Station. Some Tower Cranes are able to increase their own height, by using a jacking attachment to add new sections to their support tower.
- 3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing (AM) - The general AM process is to add material in series to a part, under computer control. This is the reverse of machining, which removes material from starting stock to produce a part. Certain AM machines, such as the RepRap 3D Printer, are intentionally designed to print copies of their own parts, along with being able to make parts for other uses. Single 3D printers generally cannot make parts of all the kinds of materials from which they are built, or make more complex parts like motors and electronics. So they are only partly self-replicating.
- Open Source Ecology - This is an ongoing project to develop a "Global Village Construction Set", 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 set, 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 why 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 2010 NASA Technology Roadmap identified 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 with these manufacturing systems on Earth can then be applied to future space projects.
By early 2013 the study work had shifted to first designing Earth versions of such Seed Factories. 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. The Project is intended as an open source collaboration to develop the technology. Anyone with relevant skills is invited to contribute to the design work. Specific products or physical factories built from the technology would be privately owned. If good results are obtained from the prototypes, then the next step would be building full working factories.
Progress to 2016
The work during 2013 focused on a single design for a sustainable community of several hundred people. They would meet 85% of their physical needs from a matured Community Factory and the products it makes. The remainder would be met from outside sources. 85% was seen as a reasonable goal for a first generation design. The design study is archived in Section 22.214.171.124 A of the Project workbook, and notes in section 9.0 of this book. From the results of the first study, we identified four different design examples, with different end points once matured. The first of these, Personal Production, is related to the original study, but focused more on the early stages and how to bootstrap getting started. It is described in Section 5 of this book. The other three are the Makernet (Section 6), which is a distributed production network in multiple locations; Industrial Production (Section 7), which looks at starter sets that grow to large-scale production; and Remote and Difficult Locations (Section 8), which looks at bootstrapping and starter sets for those kinds of locations. All four examples are currently incomplete. By doing several different designs, we hope 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 almost 3 acres and some existing buildings, which was enough to start working with. If the project outgrows that space, there are many industrial buildings and lots of undeveloped land in the area. 2015 went largely to project planning, high level systems engineering, setting up an office, and organizing technical files.
The Seed Factory idea was originally considered for space systems, and that is still an eventual goal. The high level systems work 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 started 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.
2017 and Future Work
We continue to develop the two wikibooks, and related project data, which can mostly be found by the above linked project directory. In parallel we are continuing to develop our R&D site, planning a Tool Cooperative as a first local project, building a technical team, and working with other groups and projects.
Current Concept Features
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 self-expanding production systems or seed factories, as developed in this book, also includes some other ideas:
- They can grow by using part of their output materials, parts and finished products for internal growth. The remainder of their output can be used for other purposes, like sale for income or deliverey to the system's owners. The percentage of output devoted to internal growth can vary over time.
- These 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.
- They 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.
- They 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. Production output can be traded for rare materials and hard-to-make items it cannot supply internally. The percentage of self-reproduction can vary over time.
- They 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 supplied hands-on, or by remote control.
- Self-expanding production systems are not limited to a single physical 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 is now a design choice, rather than an assumption or rule.
- These systems can use 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.
- They can use new design and operations methods 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 system.
This section and the next list what technologies and questions still need more work, and a start at a development plan for it. More details will be found in the Project Organization section of the project workbook as it is developed. The current state of development allows us to start working on designs for particular purposes. However, there are still many unanswered questions about self-expanding systems in general. An R&D plan is needed to answer these questions, and probably others not yet identified:
- Is existing technology sufficient to meet the desired goals for 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 type of products of the mature system?
- -- How does the starter set and growth path depend on the resources and environment at a particular location?
- -- When 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 do self-expanding systems 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.
Research and Development Plan
We think the following series of tasks will contribute to answering the questions in the previous section. We also think this list is preliminary, and 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 systems, so that they can be modeled and optimized.
- Comparing the state of the art in automation, robotics, AI, 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. For software, a preliminary design identifies the major functions, inputs, and outputs, and how they relate to each other.
Where new or modified technology is identified as necessary, this task covers 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 available portfolio for detail design and prototyping of full syestem 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 - This is for fabrication of custom prototype elements. Where it makes more sense, these elements can be produced elsewhere, then delivered and assembled.
- Build Prototype Test Area
- Fabricate and Assemble Prototype Hardware
- Test Prototypes
After an initial set of prototypes are developed, they can be spun off into a working factory project for owner-operators. 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.