Conquering the Universe On a Budget

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03 Jun 2013 - Dani Eder

How a Rocket Scientist Ended Up Designing Automated Factories - on Earth

Every morning I sit down at my computer and work on an idea that could change the world - automated factories that can grow like an acorn can grow into an oak tree. Like any factory they produce useful products, but they also make parts and materials for their own expansion. From a starter kit, which I call a "Seed Factory", it takes design files and turns them into more equipment. It does this by copying existing parts (replication), making parts for new equipment not in the starter set (diversification), and making larger versions of what it already has (scaling). As the factory grows and has more equipment, it can automate more of the steps from raw materials to finished product, and make a higher percentage of its own parts. The disruptive change is from linear production - where a factory produces a given product at a given rate, to exponentially expanding production, including making more Seed Factories. Some people worry that robots and automation are going to take their jobs. I say let them. If you own the automation, you have nothing to worry about. Self-expanding factories that grow from a relatively small and inexpensive starter kit can make that possible.

So how did a rocket scientist end up working on this? Not surprisingly, it started with space projects. I have always been interested in space. The Space Age began just 3 weeks before I was conceived, in 1957, and one of my oldest memories is watching a rocket launch on TV. Science fiction and the original Star Trek series in the 1960's fed that interest, and by the time I was in college I knew that is what I wanted to do for a living. Space was, and still is, too expensive for ordinary people to do on their own. So fresh physics degree in hand, I did what any young engineer in those days did. I went to work for a big government contractor, because NASA and their contractors were the only game in town if you wanted to work on space. But I didn't just want to work on space in general, or become an astronaut in the NASA hero mold. My imagination was fired in the 1970's by the first Star Wars movie, and the studies of space colonies started by Gerard O'Neill. In those, space was where lots of ordinary people lived and worked. For that to happen, space had to get way cheaper.

The cost of doing anything in space is still dominated by shipping costs. That cost is made up of the weight of equipment and people you want to send, and how much it costs to send each kilogram. Space systems engineers always try to make things as light as possible, so the big leverage seemed to be in the shipping cost. The Space Shuttle needed $18,500 to launch one kilogram to orbit, or 41% of the current price of gold ($45,000/kg). When you literally measure cost in terms of it's weight in gold, regular people just can't afford it. Lots of people are working on ways to lower the shipping cost, but hovering in the background was the idea of reducing how much you need to send. NASA calls it ISRU, which is short for In-Situ Resource Utilization, but the rest of us can call it space mining - using what is already there. The idea in fiction dates back at least to 1898's Edison's Conquest of Mars, and serious consideration goes back at least to a 1975 NASA study of a space colony.

Mining equipment, and the factories to process the raw materials into finished products, are heavy though. So another NASA study, in 1980 added the idea of a self-replicating factory. Instead of taking your heavy industrial equipment to space, you bring a small, lightweight seed factory, which proceeds to copy itself a number of times. When you have enough copies, they switch to building your big mining machines and factories. The idea was good, but 1980-era computers and remote control from Earth were not up to the task of running such a factory, so the idea was shelved. I had copies of both NASA studies, and in 2012 was working on a book about current and future space systems engineering. I realized two things. The first is that automation, robotics, and remote control technology is vastly better now than 1980. We now have the technology to operate self-replicating factories. The second is you can use that idea on Earth too, which NASA never considered because Earth isn't their job.

Once it became obvious that that self-expanding factories would work just as well on Earth as in space, my focus changed Earth. This is where everything is made today, even space hardware, and this is where many people still don't yet have a decent quality of life. Though I am still interested in space, I have set that aside for now, and am starting a "Seed Factory Project" to design and build such factories for Earth use. The project builds on existing industrial and manufacturing engineering, and will use robots, automated machine tools, 3D printers, and similar devices in the starter kit. It is too complicated for one person to do all of it, though. So I intend it to be an open-source collaboration, where different people can contribute their knowledge and skills, and end up with a share of the resulting factory. The first step, which started earlier this year, is writing a book that explains how you design such factories, and goes into some detail on example versions. When the designs are far enough along, I want to start building prototypes of the machines and software. Ideally that would start later this year, but we won't know for sure until we know exactly what to build.

The first design is what I call a "Personal Factory", which would produce food, shelter, and utilities directly for the owners. Food means things like a robot tractor and greenhouse, shelter means building materials, and utilities means solar or wind generators. From those outputs, you can then work back to the starter kit which leads to them. Such a factory would supply the basics you need to live, so losing a paid job is no longer a catastrophe. Since its mostly automated, you can still work elsewhere if you want, or just take it easy. Future versions of such factories may eventually be used in space, and the ones built on Earth will give valuable experience. For now, though, my feet are firmly planted on the ground, helping design something that meets the most basic needs that people have. That's what gets me up every morning and keeps me motivated.

Note: The article title is a play on books like The Conquest of Space, by Wernher von Braun et. al., from the 1950's, that described in glowing terms how man would venture out into space. They just never talked about how astoundingly expensive it would be, which pretty much eliminated ordinary people from being involved. Cheaper rockets, which other people are working on, and automated production, hopefully will change that in the future.