Our species is defined by our relationship to machines -- the countless "extensions of man" which now completely encase our lives. The particulars of this relationship -- the quality and style and outcomes -- are of utmost importance to everyone. So far, the general story is that over the last 10,000 years we've increased specialization, scale, and efficiency, which has led to an abundance of nearly everything. Some places have missed out, but, we are told, its only a matter of time before everyone lives longer, wealthier lives. In another TED Talk, Matt Ridley has correctly made this argument for specialization, owing much to the original essay, I Pencil, by Leonard E. Read.
However, there is a growing desire around the world to fundamentally remix this relationship with machines and specialization -- to increase access, engagement, and understanding. This movement wants to put people at the center -- to both democratize and demystify technology. Some in this movement are fueled by necessity, while others are uncomfortable with passive consumption, while others seek out fun. The DIY ethic unites them. Their banner is OSAT -- open source appropriate technology.
The most idealistic, defiant, and ambitious project among this movement is being led by a group called Open Source Ecology. This scattered network of engineers, farmers and supporters is working to build the Global Village Construction Set -- a modular, DIY, low-cost, open source, high performance platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different industrial machines that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts. Wow, that's a big sentence.
Their primary aim is to lower the barriers-to-entry into farming, building, and manufacturing. They are crazy, naive, and headstrong -- but they may succeed, and the implications would be incredible.
So far, they've prototyped 8 of the 50 Machines -- the tractor, drill press, soil pulverizer, torch table, hydraulic power unit, compressed earth brick press, walk-behind tractor, and 150-ton hole puncher. Along the way, they've been publishing the designs and instructions on their wiki. They've been financially supported by the crowd. A growing base of more than 400 "true fans" pays a small amount every month, and their recently successful Kickstarter campaign will help to build a 5k sq. ft. fabrication training facility at OSE's rural Missouri headquarters.
OSE's next step in 2012 is to build the next 8 prototypes of the GVCS -- and they're focusing exclusively on fabrication tools. This "Open Source Microfactory" would make it possible to transform scrap metal into the products of advanced civilization. Right now, to build one of the GVCS machines, you need to order parts online, but the Microfactory would enable DIY production of a majority of those components -- including ball bearings, hydraulic motors, electrical generators, microcontrollers, nuts and bolts, and steel tubing. The lineup of the Microfactory looks like this: CNC Multimachine, CNC Circuit Mill/3d Printer, Induction Furnace, Ironworker, CNC Torch Table, Universal Welder, CNC Lasercutter, Hot Metal Roller.
The science fiction author Robert Heinlein once said "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." This exuberant version of humanness is visible in OSE's founder and director, Marcin Jakubowski. He's a Princeton graduate and earned a Phd in fusion energy, yet he spends his time in the muddy trenches of a cold farm in the middle of nowhere -- fabricating, farming, and building. He's thrown his whole body at this project in a way that some see as courageous, others as unyielding.
In Missouri, Marcin leads research, prototyping and testing of the machines. It's a constant adventure, being displayed on OSE's blog. However, the whole point is to share the instructions, and they've got to be comprehensive. So, for every machine they build, OSE is publishing an online library that includes pretty much everything -- the design rationale, 3d CAD files, 2d fabrication drawings, circuit board design files, wiring diagrams, machine-readable CAM files, exploded parts diagrams, CAE analysis, step-by-step videos, control codes for automated devices, scaling calcations, the physics of why it works, and the performance and cost analysis vs. industry standards. They're also promising a user manual that will include the operation procedures, safety, maintenance, troubleshooting, and repair.
There's a lot of activity in this space. Groups such as Practical Action, Appropedia, and Howtopedia all provide instructional knowledge repositories. Recently, a new gold standard for the "how to" genre was released by two Swedish designers -- taking a cue from IKEA. Their instructions for a pedal-powered industrial juicer are able to transcend language barriers through pictograms -- enabling semi-literate engineers in Kenya's informal maker economy. In the states, Farm Hack is working to publish improvised solutions useful to young farmers. Lasersaur, DIYLILCNC, Reprap, and others are all sharing plans and promoting a culture of Open Hardware -- not to mention the resurgence of consumer kits.
The GVCS is distinguished from these projects in that it seeks to create an entirely new, integrated ecology of machines. Their thinking is that we can't always rely on fixing old stuff, and old stuff is different wherever you go. Decisions regarding which machines to include in the GVCS are made using a rigorous selection matrix that skews towards robust utility and the fulfillment of necessities. Their design methodology emphasizes user serviceability and heirloom strength. Remember, its the 50 machines that it takes to build civilization from scratch and scrap.
A lot of people think this is ridiculous and overly ambitious. It is. It's a big, hairy, audacious goal. Frankly, they'll need way more help if it's going to happen -- more project managers and more full-time leaders like Marcin. Ironically, their first sign of real success might be to see the plans being used in cheap Chinese factories. Whatever happens, I think there's a lot being discovered by this project. Can people from all over the world come together over the internet to recreate their relationship to industrial machines? We shall see.
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