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Design Elements for a Seed Factory

Dani Eder [1]
Tirion Designs,
1309 Stroud Ave, Gadsden, AL 35903
Biological seeds grow into larger organisms which eventually produce copies of the original seed. By
analogy a seed factory is one which grows from a small starter set to a larger final version, which can
produce more seeds, among other outputs. We introduce the concept and related terms, some of the
history of the idea, a proposed set of elements which make up a seed factory, a first estimate of growth
rates, and work in progress and unanswered questions for further development
Using tools to build more tools is not a new idea, in fact it is nearly as old as toolmaking. A more recent idea is to
use an optimized starter set of machines which can both reproduce their own parts and make parts for other machines
and end products. The machines are also computer-controlled, so that relatively little human labor is required to
operate them. This starter set, which is called a Seed Factory, is more than one machine because no single machine
can currently work with all types of materials or perform all types of production tasks. The seed factory grows in
capacity by several methods:
Adding identical copies of the starter machines, which is called Replication,
Producing larger versions or extensions to the starter set, and
Producing different machines that can do new tasks and expand the range of possible outputs.
The factory output can be divided into Internal Production, or making parts for the factory itself, and External
Production destined for end users or for sale. Internal production can further be divided into maintenance and repair
parts, and growth parts for the methods listed above. The parameter measuring your ability to make your own
machine's parts is called Closure. This comes from the idea of "closing the loop" where the output of the factory
loops around to become an input of new equipment. A given design which makes, for example, 60% of the parts
from which it is built is said to have 60% closure.
An ideal seed factory would not only have 100% closure, but grow and expand it's range without additional outside
parts and supplies. This goal most likely cannot be reached, especially starting from current technology. But to the
extent that it does, it reduces the start-up and later production costs of the full factory into which it grows. For
example, assume the seed factory starts at 10% the size of the final factory and initially can produce 60% of the parts
for expansion, and then grows to producing 90% of of its parts at full size. Then the total investment will be about
75% lower than building the final factory directly.
An ideal seed factory would only need a human to press "Make" on a computer screen, and wait for the product to be
finished. Automation and robotics is not at that level yet, but a seed factory design can be optimized for existing
automation, and upgraded over time as new software and hardware is developed. An example of such new
technology is the Google self-driving car, which could be applied to the robotic vehicles in the seed factory. The
closer that designs get to 100% replication and 0% human labor, the closer we get to an era of exponentially growing
capacity with no added work, and thus a very high return on investment.
Starter sets have occurred throughout human history, especially when settling new areas. In fact, humans made the
first tools without any precursors, just using available raw materials from the environment, so the first starter set was
just our hands and minds. Once a certain level of civilization had developed, colonizing a new location by ship or

land travel included bringing a set of plant seeds, animals, and tools. The contents of the starter set varied by era, but
it was well understood that you needed such a set to survive and flourish.
Automation and robotics has received extensive development since the mid-20th century, to the point that
computer-controlled machine tools are extensively used to make more computer-controlled machine tools. They do
not produce all of their own parts, but can make many of them, and operate for long periods unattended. Blacksmiths
historically were able to copy 100% of their own tools, plus make tools for other trades, so reached 100% closure,
but they were 0% automated. So far as we know, no single factory combines full closure and full automation.
A 1981 NASA study, Advanced Automation for Space Missions, proposed a seed factory for use on the Moon.
The computer requirements were far beyond what was available at the time, and there was no pressing need to build
things on the Moon, so the concept was not developed further. It probably is still the best single study of the concept,
despite being finished before adequate computers were available. A 2004 book by Freitas and Merkle, Kinematic
Self-Replicating Machines [2] thoroughly reviewed the literature for replicating systems. Replication is related to
seed factories, but the latter are not restricted to only making exact copies of themselves. They can also make
different machines or larger versions of existing machines, and thus evolve. Seed factories can also start with some
percentage of outside parts and supplies, and some amount of human labor. Replicators are usually envisioned as
fully automated and fully self-copying, which is a more difficult starting point.
Starter Set
The following proposed starter set has emerged from a conceptual design study for Advanced Production. It should
be able to produce a reasonably high percentage of it's own parts. With sufficient programming it should also run
with low levels of human labor. All the elements in the starter set appear to be within current technology, although
some custom design and software will be needed. The study is still in progress, so the list of starter elements may
change. Despite this, we think it is worth describing the current seed factory concept so that others can comment and
improve on it.
The set was selected with an emphasis on flexibility, so that the early machines can do many different tasks. As the
seed factory grows to a full capacity factory, more specialized machines and additional copies of the starter set can
be added to increase efficiency and production rates. The sizes of the machines are currently unspecified. That will
depend on the desired output rates and what final products are to be produced. The best starter set will also likely
change with location. The one that follows assumes a temperate environment on Earth, in or near a developed area.

(1) Robotic Equipment

This includes a combination of vehicle

and manipulation elements to provide
physical motion. The motion is
produced by electric motors or
hydraulics. The vehicle elements
function like a farm tractor, performing
a variety of functions by the use of
different attachments. The robotic
elements include cameras, computers,
robotic arms, and end tools to
manipulate objects. The design is
envisioned as modular, with a frame,
drive system (wheels, tracks, or legs),
power system, and multiple attachment
locations. One attachment would be a
"manual control module", for times
Figure 1 - Robotic vehicle with attachments.
when a human needs to operate the
vehicle directly. This can happen when
a unique task is not worth programming to be automated, or human senses can respond better to unexpected
conditions. Repetitive operations, like transporting rocks from a quarry pit, can be automated.
The robotic elements can also be used detached from the vehicle in a stationary location. In the factory building it
would use a fixed mounting point with utility connections. The combined set of robotic equipment can, with the right
attachments and tools, extract raw materials, haul them to the factory, then move items within the factory and do
repetitive assembly tasks. Figure 1 shows a cancelled military unmanned ground vehicle design. Although cancelled,
it illustrates the concept of a robotic vehicle with different attachments. It does not show the kind of robotic arms
proposed here.

(2) Solar Furnace

Many tasks require heat, and a solar furnace

generates heat without consuming external
electricity or fuels. This is envisioned as a
collection of small mirrors that are mounted on a
polar primary axis to follow the Sun's daily
motion, and a seasonal tilt adjustment. The
mirrors are arranged as either a flat Fresnel array
or a paraboloid section to bring the sunlight to a
focus. A secondary convex mirror above the
primary mirror array directs the light back down
to the polar axis. The focus therefore stays fixed
as the Sun moves, making it easier to use the
concentrated light, and having it at a more
convenient working height. Different targets are
placed at the focus depending on the task at hand.
A furnace can make bricks and other ceramics,
cement for concrete, melt metals for casting, and
make glass for more furnaces and other uses. It
can also make electricity by placing a steam
boiler or concentrating solar cells at the focus,
and store energy by piping the heat into a rock
thermal storage bed. If more than one task needs
to be done, multiple copies of the furnace can be Figure 2 - Solar furnace.
built, or a larger version which shares the focus
zone. The furnace may need auxiliary heating when sunlight is not sufficient or intermittent. Figure 2 shows a solar
furnace with a different kind of mounting. The design we propose places a secondary mirror where this one has the
target, and moves the target to a fixed location near the ground where it is more accessible.

(3) Bridge Mill

This is designed as a fixed-post bridge

which moves in the vertical (Z) axis,
and sliding table on rails in the
horizontal (X) axis that moves under
the bridge. The bridge itself has 4
mounts which move crosswise (Y),
two on the front face and two on the
back face. On each face, one mount
starts from the left and the other from
the right side. Each mount has it's own
lead screw, so they can move
independently. Different heads for
machining, 3D printing, plasma or
laser cutting, spray painting, or other
Figure 3 - Bridge mill.

tasks attach to each mount as needed, and the different heads can swap bits or get refills as needed at the end
positions, which extend past the posts beyond the work area. The table can accept pallets with additional motion
axes, and the various heads can also include extra axes. For jobs like plasma cutting or painting, the pallet includes
protection for the surroundings.
If more than four kinds of operations are needed, then multiple heads can be exchanged, or a second bridge installed
further along the rails. By sharing the base rails and bridge for the main XYZ motions, less total equipment is
required for multiple operations. This limits how many tasks can be done at the same time, but that is an acceptable
compromise for a starter set. Figure 3 shows a small simple bridge mill which illustrates the basic shape and motion
axes. It does not have many of the features noted here for a seed factory machine.

(4) Horizontal Lathe

This is designed with 4 parallel fixed

rails. Two rails hold the main
spindle/chuck with drive motor,
tailstock or secondary spindle, and any
intermediate supports. The workpiece
is held by the main spindle and some
combination of the other supports. The
other two rails support a moving
cross-slide, turret, or milling head as
needed. Whichever is not needed is
stored at the rail ends. Tool changers
are located above the main work area
with a supply of different tools and
attachments as needed. Since the four
fixed rails are solidly attached to each
other, highly accurate machining can Figure 4 - Horizontal lathe.
be performed. Figure 4 shows an older
horizontal lathe with the spindle and chuck on the left, tailstock on the right, and cross-slide on the front face. This
version has two fixed rails, while the proposed design places the cross-slide and other attachments on additional rails
so they can be parked or used as needed.

(5) Hydraulic Press

This is a four-post main press with

hydraulic piston, and top and bottom
slotted plates for mounting
attachments. The posts keep the upper
and lower jaws of the press parallel as
the piston forces the upper jaw down.
It includes various inserts for pressing
into dies and molds, shearing, rolling,
bending, and shaping. Thin metal can
be worked at room temperature, while
thicker metal sections can be pressed
hot (forging). Pressing is not as
accurate as machining done by the Mill
and Lathe, but is much faster. Figure 5
shows a press very close to the type
described with multiple attachments in
place. It is an older manual version.
The one proposed here would have
automated replacement of attachments
and feed of materials or blanks for the
Figure 5 - Hydraulic press.

(6) Chemical Plant

To make copies of the machines, or

new ones not in the original set,
various materials are required. Some of
the materials can be produced using
the solar furnace, the ones requiring
high temperatures. But other materials
require a series of chemical reactions
or operations. This "machine" consists
of a variety of units that each perform
simple chemical processes. They can
be connected in a flexible, modular
way to perform more complex
processes according to a programmed
"recipe". This is in contrast to most
commercial plants, which are designed
Figure 6 - Chemical plant.
to carry out a single process on a mass
scale using equipment installed
permanently. The same types of basic units will need to be built in different materials (glass, stainless steel, etc.) for
chemical compatibility and different temperature and pressure ranges.
Whatever outputs are not the desired products are recycled or reprocessed so that the plant does not generate large
amounts of waste. The units will also need cleaning to prevent cross-contamination when the process is changed.
Figure 6 shows a proposed chemical process for extracting materials from Lunar soil. It gives the general idea of a

chemical plant made up of simpler elements, but does not include the ability to change processes by rearranging the

(7) Electric Shop

A variety of electrical and electronic

devices are needed for automated
machines. This includes wires,
insulators, motors, generators,
batteries, switches and relays,
transformers, resistors, capacitors,
inductors, filaments, circuit boards,
and microelectronics. The electric shop
element is not one big machine, but a
collection of a number of smaller
elements that fill in as many these
kinds of items as feasible. For
example, raw wire may be rolled in the
hydraulic press, and motor frames
Figure 7 - Electric shop.
machined in the Lathe or Mill, but coil
winding to make motors is a
specialized task for the electric shop. The more specialized components, like microprocessor chips, are simply
bought, but there should be an intermediate range of items that can be made in the factory. Figure 7 shows an
electrical production workshop. We propose at least partially automated fabrication and assembly.

(8) Building and Support Equipment

All the major equipment listed

previously needs protection from the
weather at least occasionally. In
addition, housing for the control
computers and a design area, a firm
foundation, and utilities and lighting
are needed. Beyond the main machine,
chemical, and electrical areas, there is
a need for storage, secondary machines
for measuring, grinding, and
sharpening, and portable and hand
tools. This element of the factory
includes the building itself, plus the
supporting equipment listed, areas for
assembly, aisles for transport and
access, etc.
The building or buildings use a Figure 8 - Factory building.

modular design, with environment

control and protection from the outside as needed, and the ability to be extended or modified easily as need change
and the factory grows. Figure 8 shows a large general-purpose workshop building similar to the type proposed for
the seed factory.

Production Flows
Each type of product made by the factory will require a different process flow. The following examples show some
of the major process flows and which of the factory elements perform a given step. Some tasks will require making
intermediate items like molds and attachments in addition to the original starter set.
Stone and Concrete - Sized gravel and sand can be used directly for construction, or added to cement to make
Excavate rock and sand (Robotic vehicle with backhoe and bucket attachments)
Transport rock to factory (Robotic vehicle with cargo trailer attachment)
Crush and size rock (Hydraulic press and screens made with mill and plasma cutter attachment)
Calcine cement (Solar furnace and limestone/shale ingredients)
Grind cement powder (Grinding mill made from metal parts and electric motors)
Metals - Early production uses scrap metal. Later in factory growth new metal is chemically extracted from rock.
Transport scrap to factory (Robotic vehicle with cargo trailer attachment)
Make molds (Bridge Mill and Lathe to make patterns, sand from Stone and Concrete process)
Cast rough parts and stock (Solar Furnace and molds)
Fabricate finished parts:
- Machine castings to finished size (Bridge Mill and Lathe), or
- Forge stock to finished shape (Solar Furnace to preheat and Hydraulic Press with inserts to shape), or
- Make sheet metal parts (Solar Furnace to preheat, Hydraulic press with rollers to make sheet, Bridge Mill to
cut sheet to finished shape)
Ceramics - Includes brick, paving, tile, and household wares
Prepare clay mix (see Stone and Concrete steps)
Forming green shape (Hydraulic press with molds)
Drying and preheating (Building storage and waste heat from other processes or thermal storage from Solar
Firing (Solar furnace with auxiliary heat as needed, insulated chamber for gradual cooling)
Glass - Early production uses scrap glass (cullet). Later in factory growth makes glass from ingredients.
Transport scrap glass to factory (Robotic vehicle with cargo trailer)
Make glass molds (see Metals steps)
Melt glass (Solar furnace with auxiliary heat as needed)
Cast or blow glass (Molds plus compressed air if needed)
Anneal glass (Insulated chamber)
Cut logs from trees (Robotic vehicle with saw and cable attachments)
Saw logs to rough lumber (Robotic vehicle with bandsaw attachment)
Transport lumber to Factory (Robotic vehicle with cargo trailer)
Dry lumber (Building storage with solar assist)
Fabricate wood parts (Bridge Mill and Lathe)
Fibers - This cannot be done immediately by the starter set. It requires extensive equipment for growing, spinning,
and weaving for natural fibers, high temperature melting for mineral fibers, or chemical processing for synthetic
fibers. Once fibers and cloth are made, additional equipment is needed to incorporate the fibers into reinforced
products or to sew flexible items. Therefore we leave fiber production out of the starter set and include it in later
growth stages.
Electric Devices - This starts with generators, motors, and batteries and adds more types of devices over time.

Fabricate wires (Hydraulic press with forming rolls for large diameter wire, Electric shop wire drawing machine
for smaller wire)
Fabricate motors and generators (Electric shop coil winding machine and Metals task above for other parts)
Generate electricity (Solar furnace with concentrated photovoltaic or steam turbine generators)
Store energy (Solar furnace with dry rock thermal storage or Chemical plant battery ingredients)
Bulk Chemicals - There are a large number of possible products, so a starter chemical plant will be designed for the
ones needed for seed factory operation, and then expanded over time.
Supply raw ingredients (Local air, water, rock, and plant sources, plus outside supply as required)
Chemical processing (Chemical plant)
Store products (Building storage plus glass, metal, and plastic containers)
Water - Both for human use, and production tasks. For seed factory simple collection or public supply is used.
Water recycling requires building additional equipment.
Collect water (Building piping and gutters, stream flow, wells, and process outputs)
Treat water (Sand and absorbent beds, solar distillation)
Production and Growth Rates
Until we have a complete design of all the elements, we cannot make an exact estimate of the production rates and
how fast the seed factory can grow. We can make a rough estimate by assuming that the factory buildings, excluding
solar furnace, and all their contents have a mass of 2500 kg/m2 (510 psf), typical for a heavy duty building. Chemical
and thermal processes require the most energy, and we can use an estimate of 30 MJ/kg including efficiency losses.
A typical value for direct sunlight, which is needed for the furnace to operate, is 4 kWh/m2/day. If we assume that
the collector area is 3 times the remaining building area, and the solar furnace mass is 50 kg/m2, since it consists
mostly of relatively thin mirrors. Thus each square meter of collector must produce 833.3 kg x 30 MJ/kg = 26,500
MJ of total energy to copy itself and it's share of the remaining factory. The daily output of 4 kWh = 14.4 MJ,
therefore the factory in theory will copy itself in 25,500/14.4 = 1840 days, or 5 years. Since new equipment can
increase production rates before the entire copy is finished, the correct way to calculate the growth is take the inverse
of the copying time, 20% per year, and compound it. This gives a doubling time of 3.8 years.
Since production rates are limited by available energy, if we assume solar collector areas typical of the ratio of farm
fields to their buildings (100:1), then each unit of collector only needs to produce 75 kg of total mass. In theory this
would take 78 days. In practice some other part of the factory may become the limiting item at such large collector
areas. For now we cay say a doubling time of several months to several years looks reasonable.
Current and Future Work
Our current conceptual design study assumes building a sustainable community for several hundred people and
meeting 85% of their needs from local production. The remainder would be from outside sources. We are working
towards a resource model and flow network for such a community to find out what actually needs to be produced.
From that, the final factory elements can be found, and then the starter set that leads to the final factory. This is not
the only possible use for a seed factory, but we think it is an important one. The Earth will need to support several
billion more people by mid-century, and everyone, not just the added population, would like a decent quality of life.
For such goals to be sustainable, communities need to operate mostly from local material and energy resources with
high levels of recycling, and be less dependent on scarce resources with limited supply. Assuming we can get
satisfactory results from the design study, our next step would be to prototype the elements of a seed factory, and
demonstrate they can work together in practice, and satisfy the design goals we have set.
Other future uses for seed factories include settling difficult environments on Earth, such as deserts, oceans, and ice
caps. 80% of the Earth's surface is regions such as this. Distributing some of the planet's population to these areas
will relieve resource and environment pressure on the more densely occupied temperate areas. Automated factories
that output greenhouses and desalination plants, for example, could enable living in these difficult areas. A seed

factory would allow bootstrapping up to these kind of automated factories in new areas without existing
infrastructure. In the longer term, seed factories may prove useful in the more difficult and undeveloped environment
of space.
Although we can now list what we think is a reasonable starter set for a particular purpose, there are many
unanswered questions about how to design and optimize a seed factory in general:
Does the seed factory approach better meet people's needs than conventional specialized factories?
What is the relationship among starter set complexity, physical scale, initial cost, and growth rates?
What is the optimal path to increasing the percentage of self-production (closure) and automation when growing
past the starter set?
How should production capacity be divided between internal maintenance and growth, outputs for an end user,
and products for sale?
How does the design depend on the resources and environment at a particular location?
Do all the required technologies for a seed factory exist, or are new or improved technologies required?
We do not think a single study or small team can answer all these questions. A seed factory is a complex design
involving multiple engineering fields. So we invite others to bring their knowledge, experience, and creativity to bear
on these questions and move the concept of seed factories into the realm of practical applications.
[1] Author email: danielravennest@gmail.com.
[2] http:/ / www. molecularassembler. com/ KSRM. htm
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