The Seed Factory Project
- Project Overview
0.0 - Introduction
The Seed Factory Project is an open-source collaboration to develop the concepts, technologies, and working examples of automated self-expanding production systems. A Seed Factory bootstraps itself from a starter set of core machines. It grows to any size you need by making parts, materials, and entire new machines. The machines can be copies of the starter set, larger versions, or different ones that enable new products. Design files and instructions are supplied for guiding the production process.
We want to enable a sustainable 21st century civilization with a high quality of life. Our approach to this is using high levels of automation and renewable energy, integrated waste flows and recycling, and using local resources and production to minimize transportation needs. We also want to enable economic resilience in the face of coming automation replacing many jobs. Early generation factories are intended for communities of owner-operators, who build the equipment and use the products they make themselves. This makes them self-supporting despite a shortage of paid employment, and without the need for massive income transfer programs.
With people's basic needs taken care of, later generation systems can grow to industrial scale. These larger units are "grown" from smaller starter kits or previous generation equipment. They should therefore be cheaper to build than conventional factories. In the longer term, the technology will enable living in more difficult environments, and eventually beyond the Earth. It does this by minimizing the equipment to get started, and using local raw materials and energy to make what is needed. The general idea of a starter set which grows in capacity by making more equipment for itself, is universal. The detailed processes and products, however, will be different for each application and environment.
We think that modern computers, networking, automation, robotics, software, and sensors have reached the point that this kind of self-expanding system is possible. We also think that such factories can mostly use locally available raw materials and renewable energy, and recycle many waste products. The combination of a small starter kit, less need for outside supplies, and high levels of automation should make such factories sustainable and low cost to operate. The apparent feasibility and advantages are the motivation for this project. What our project hopes to prove is these advantages are real by building actual examples.
0.1 - Seed Factories
Biological seeds grow into larger organisms using local matter and energy, and eventually produce copies of the original seeds. A Seed Factory is a new kind of production system intentionally designed to grow in a similar way. It begins with a small starter set (the seed), expands to a mature factory, then eventually makes copies of the starter set. Like any factory, the point of building it is to produce useful products as outputs. But in additions it self-expands by making some items for internal use. The expansion uses a combination of three methods:
- Replication - making copies of its own parts
- Diversification - making parts for new and different equipment
- Scaling - making parts for larger versions of existing equipment
We refer to it as a factory rather than a single machine because a number of different materials and production processes are needed. These are best carried out by separate machines that are optimized for what they do. For a useful level of outputs, the final set of equipment is also closer to commercial building size than home garage or desktop size, so "factory" is a more appropriate description. The starter set, however, can be much smaller, just like a plant seed is much smaller than the mature plant it grows into.
Traditional factories had to house all the equipment and people in one place, because it was the only way to coordinate the work. With modern computers, networks, and software this is no longer required. We can coordinate machines in different places, and people can operate them remotely. So when we refer to a "factory" in this project, its parts may still be located in one place for efficiency, but they don't have to be - they may be partly or entirely distributed. What's important in the concept of a factory is that the equipment and people work together on a regular basis, and make a desired set of products, not their physical locations.
Seed factories are designed to operate as an integrated whole. Combining multiple production steps in one system allows more automation and reduced overhead, compared to conventional specialized factories. Integrated process flows can also use wastes from one step as inputs to others, increasing overall efficiency. The fully-grown factories are intended to have high levels of automation and the ability to make finished equipment items. The starter sets, however, will not be as capable. They will require more inputs of labor, parts, and materials to start the growth process. As they grow, and expand their equipment set, they can gradually become more automated and capable of a higher percentage of self-production.
0.2 - Project Background
NASA first studied the idea of seed factories in 1980. It was part of a general look at future automation for space projects. However, the computer and communications technology of the time was much too slow to run such a factory, and automation software was in its infancy. So the idea was set aside by NASA. In 2012 an aerospace engineer, Dani Eder, was reviewing their study report: Advanced Automation for Space Missions while working on a modern space systems engineering textbook: Space Transport and Engineering Methods. Past textbooks cover how to design rockets and satellites, but not future projects like asteroid mining or surface bases. Ways to build local production would be useful for such future projects, because they reduce what needs to be brought from Earth. He noticed that vast progress had been made in the past 30 years in the relevant fields. An idea that was set aside in 1980, because it was too hard at the time, might now be feasible.
Space is NASA's main job, so they never considered applying the idea of seed factories to Earth. As Eder started working on the idea, it quickly became obvious that if it could work in space, it should also work on Earth - the laws of nature and available technology are the same. Space projects need things like rocket factories, launch sites, and control centers. Seed factories could provide more efficient production and construction of these ground facilities. But more generally, there is a much greater need for improved manufacturing on Earth, both in developed and undeveloped regions. So logically, the first designs should be for today's earthly needs. Future space factories can come afterwards, when enough experience and production capacity are available to support them. The current Seed Factory Project follows this "Earth first" plan.
Tool Replication and Growth - Our ancestors have used tools to make more tools since the development of sharpened stones and controlled fire in the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age). The whole of our technological civilization has been built up from simpler elements over time. Developing nations since the Industrial Revolution have used the virtuous loop of coal, steel, and steam to increase quantities of all three, and spin off other products powered by them. So in this sense the concept of a growing industrial capacity that makes more of itself is not new. As a continuation of this historical process we plan to start with existing tools and machines to build the first seed factory elements. We would then use both the existing and new equipment to demonstrate further growth.
In comparison to general current manufacturing, the new aspects to our project include:
- Treating production equipment and end users as an integrated system.
- Designing the elements so they can grow in a planned sequence from a small starter set.
- Basing them on widely available and sustainable material and energy resources.
- Using modern automation and robotics to make them highly productive.
0.3 - Project Rationale
In proposing or promoting any project, a number of questions naturally arise. In this section we will try to answer the more obvious ones.
- If this is such a good idea, why has it not been done before?
Part of the reason is that until recently computers and automation were not up to the task. Another is that our capitalist system has tended to separate production into specialized factories for reasons of economies of scale. The oil refinery is separate from the steel mill, which is separate from the auto plant. Because they are separate, you can't easily optimize the pieces to work together or automate the transfer of parts and materials between them. Finally, partial versions of seed factories do, in fact, exist. Some builders of automated machine tools use their own products to make more of the same machines they sell, and some robot makers use the same robots in their factories to make more robots. Historically, the blacksmith made tools for the miner and carpenter, who in turn supplied him with ore and coal, and built the smith's workshop. So production networks have existed for a long time. What's new is we can now automate most of the work, and cheap electronics is making automation affordable for individuals and small groups.
- Why do this project, and not something else?
There are a number of technical, economic, and social reasons:
(1) Current industrial and social organization has deficiencies that self-owned, community-oriented, flexible production can address. Current business models rely on large, specialized factories, in diverse locations, under separate ownership from each other and their employees, with maximizing profit as the primary motivation. This business model creates the following issues:
- Large, specialized factories tie up a lot of capital in their construction, and do not respond well when technology or markets change. If the factory becomes uneconomic, it can have a disproportionate impact on a local community. Although economies of scale can apply to mass production, there are dis-economies to having a pyramid of highly paid management and the slower reaction time of a large organization.
- The diversity of locations imposes long shipping distances for raw materials and finished products. This consumes energy, takes time, and requires multiple handling at each end of the shipping routes to load and unload. Physical separation makes it more difficult to automate tasks, or integrate flows between operations to gain efficiency.
- The separation of suppliers and customers, and owners and employees, tends to make them "other entities" to be taken advantage of, rather than collaborating for mutual gain. Thus the incentives for the owners are to reduce or eliminate wages in order to keep more for themselves, leading to job insecurity for the people who were doing the actual work. When customers are separate from suppliers, the incentive is to make the item as cheaply as possible, for more profit, and not last long, for repeat sales. When the producer is also the user, the incentives are different - to make it right the first time so as not to have to replace or repair it so often.
- Profit is well known to be a strong motivator, but the modern world is more complex, and other factors are more important than in the past. The single-purpose corporate model of profit above all else is ill-suited to the modern environment. Considered as corporate entities, they must be forced to behave towards other goals against their basic nature. This creates inefficiencies in compliance overhead and inevitable attempts to avoid meeting societal goals. It would be better if goals besides profit were designed into the structure of an organization in the first place.
(2) Seed factories can address a number of the problems of our current civilization. Many people are still poor and live in undeveloped conditions. The potential for rapid self-replication and expansion can supply things people need quickly and at lower cost than other approaches. Even in developed areas, many people's jobs are insecure, and they work because they must, rather than out of preference. Self-ownership and automation can address these problems.
0.4 - Project Methods
Self-expanding production systems of the type described above are new. Fortunately we don't have to start from scratch, or do everything at once. We can bootstrap the project itself from a small starter set of people and equipment. The necessary fields of information technology and industrial automation already have extensive backgrounds that we can build on.