This article discusses how some amateur engineers are working to design and build a set of tools that would enable self-reliant people to make everything they need. Marcin Jakubowski and his colleagues are among such people who are working for the past many years on the concept of open-source economy. The rationale for this concept is steeped in the language of empowerment. Using an open-source Web platform known as a wiki, Jakubowski worked with a far-flung network of collaborators over the Internet to identify the minimum number of technologies needed to produce a reasonable facsimile of modern life. Some of the items on the resulting list are the greatest hits of industrialism over the past 200 years: the steam engine, the combine, and the induction furnace. So far, the team has completed seven prototype machines: the tractor, a tiller, a hydraulic power unit, a computer numerically controlled plasma torch table, a drill press, a hole punch, and a compressed earth block press.
Marcin Jakubowski and his colleagues like to call themselves farmers, but the tract of land they live on is too weedy and ramshackle to really count as a farm. They grow some of their own food, to be sure, but the one-time soybean field now operates at a mere fraction of its former productivity.
“Basically, we need a full-time agricultural person here,” Jakubowski said. “But it's not a priority. Growing potatoes isn’t going to put us on the map.”
Fortunately for Jakubowski, most people who look at what he's up to grade the farming business on a curve. Instead, they look at the ingenious devices that he and his colleague, William Cleaver, have built, largely on their own, over the past two years.
Take, for instance, the LifeTrac II. The machine looks primitive, made of unpainted, boxy steel tubing and big, bald tires. Black hydraulic lines snake around connecting the small motor to the wheels and to a couple of sets of pistons attached to mechanical arms. In pictures where it sits in a weedy field, it looks like a junk heap.
And yet, when it's up and running, the junk heap springs to life. Its wheels, connected by homemade tank treads, grind through the uneven terrain and the hydraulic pistons move a pair of rudimentary loader arms. The tractor was used to scoop up soil and dump it into a block-pressing machine that Jakubowski and Cleaver constructed last year.
Shade tree mechanics build their own contraptions all the time, and many have a much more polished construction than the LifeTrac or the compressed earth block press. Jakubowski's efforts stand out because of his ambition: He wants to design and build a set of tools that can enable a small group to provide everything they need—food, clothing, shelter, and creature comforts—independent of the rest of world.
The elevator pitch, Jakubowski said, was that by creating open source plans for hardware that virtually anyone could build, the barriers to starting a small-scale manufacturing business or farm would be reduced. Instead of being dependent on others to build and maintain the tools needed for production, people could make them themselves. Ten people, he said, could get together “and become pretty much self-reliant, with a high quality of life because of the tools and techniques they are using.
“Normal first world, without any compromise.” It's the kind of ambition that gets attention. Jakubowski and Cleaver have been written up in blogs and gadget magazines over the past couple of years, and Jakubowski gave a talk at a recent TED conference, a high-profile event conducted by the Sapling Foundation. But can a small group of doit-yourself builders really reconstitute the essential technologies necessary to start society over from scratch?
The rationale for the open source economy that Jakubowski has outlined is steeped in the language of empowerment—giving individuals the tools and the options that now exist for large companies. And yet, the project has received attention for its promise to help create communities that would be resilient in the face of potentially jarring events. Certainly, concerns over the depletion of natural resources such as oil, changes in the global climate patterns, and the harrowing economic downturn of a couple of years back have created a sense in some circles that the conventional American way of life is coming to an end.
But unlike the specter of a nuclear holocaust which haunted the Cold War era, the problems that trouble this generation don’t suggest that humanity itself is doomed. Rather, people who predict some sort of impending collapse point to a kind of civilizational dead end in which the technologies and systems that we’ve depended upon can no longer provide the standard of living we’ve come to expect.
Think the fall of Rome or the collapse of Easter Island rather than the fires of Armageddon.
That sense of the end of things as we’ve known them runs through quite a few recent projects. In the late 1990s, for instance, a group of engineers and designers built a prototype for a clock capable of tracking time for 10,000 years—which could serve as a monument to the present era's ingenuity and as a spur to thinking on longer timeframes. A foundation is working toward building a full-scale model in the western United States. In various places in Europe and the United States, conversely, individual cities are drawing up plans on how to survive a collapse of oil production and the global trade in goods and services that depends on it. The goal for these so-called transition towns would be to develop largely local economies.
That sense of the end of one system becoming the beginning of the next permeates the Open Source Ecology project that Marcin Jakubowski heads up. Before Jakubowski moved to his farmstead in Missouri, he was immersed in nuclear physics as a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. But after a few years of studying the problems underlying sustainable nuclear fusion, Jakubowski had something of a crisis of faith in high technology.
“The further I went with my education, the more disappointed and disenchanted I became with how useless and irrelevant it became,” Jakubowski said. Instead of developing a technology for the benefit of mankind, he viewed his work as an academic exercise. “The more I looked for meaning, the less I got.”
Jakubowski earned his doctorate, but instead of working for a national laboratory, he set out with some friends to begin analyzing industrial society from the ground up. What people needed, he reasoned, were land and the tools to make what they wanted.
The result was an ambitious project: Identify, design, and build the minimum tool set necessary to reproduce a “First World” lifestyle. With those tools and a little know-how, an individual or a small team could make everything one would need, from scoops to nuts, as it were. Indeed, for the project to be successful, the most important objects it should be able to reproduce are the parts to make the very tools themselves.
An example of that concept could be found at the Maker Faire, a traveling trade show for people who practice odd arts and make their own gadgets. The edition held on the site of the New York World's Fair last September featured homemade tricycle races and lock picking demonstrations and people selling any manner of crafts embedded with light emitting diodes.
One of the most bustling tents was populated with hobbyists showing off their homebrew rapid prototyping machines. There, machines operating from instructions fed to them by laptop computers slowly extruded plastic to form three-dimensional objects. Most of the machines on display were making toys or models of human heads. The items, made from plastics such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene or polylactic acid, felt a little cheap and brittle, and the construction process was hair-pullingly slow, but there was undeniable power in the idea that an amateur could design and manufacture a customized part in a matter of a few hours.
One of the 3-D printer models on display is known as the Rep-Rap, and it's based on the elegant concept that the rapid-prototyping machine ought to be able to reproduce itself through the parts it can make itself. Begun as a project at the University of Bath in England, the Rep-Rap is a skeletal framework supporting belts and drives and a plastic extruder. To be sure, the extruder head and the steel supports are beyond the scope of the Rep-Rap to print out— and look to be for quite a while. But the engineers behind the current design proudly boast that 60 percent of the device's parts can be printed by the machine. If you don’t count nuts and bolts.
In some important ways, the ultimate goal of the Open Source Ecology project is to create a large-scale Rep-Rap. (The team has actually built its own regular-scale Rep-Rap.) Although it would be scattered over several different tools, the set would be capable of refabricating itself from raw materials, mostly scrap steel.
Using an open-source Web platform known as a wiki, Jakubowski worked with a far-flung network of collaborators over the Internet to identify the minimum number of technologies needed to produce a reasonable facsimile of modern life. Some of the items on the resulting list are the greatest hits of industrialism over the past 200 years: the steam engine, the combine, the induction furnace. Other bits, such as the plastic greenhouse sheeting and raised-bed organic gardening, would look at home in the Whole Earth Catalog. The technologies would work together, Jakubowski said, so that the furnace would melt scrap steel that would be cast and rolled by another machine, cut to length with a plasma torch, and machined to produce a usable part or product.
After putting together the list of technologies, Jakubowski and Cleaver, who joined the project in 2008, began the process of designing a set of tools that embody those technologies. That's not because those tools don’t already exist: you can buy everything on the list from retailers today.
Jakubowski had very specific design requirements for the tools. First, they had to be open source, meaning that the designs were free from intellectual property protections and thus could be shared and adapted without penalty. The raw materials had to be sourced locally to as great an extent as possible. And the machines must be designed so that they can be taken apart and repaired easily, since there's no sense in investing in an independent, off-the-grid technology if you wind up depending upon on-the-grid mechanics for maintenance.
Those constraints force a particular aesthetic on the designs. The primary structural elements, for instance, are lengths of square steel tubing bolted together to make rectangles and boxes. It's sturdy and inexpensive, but it makes everything look like it was built from an oversize Erector set.
The wheels of the tractor are powered directly by four hydraulic motors connected to a pump run off an 18 hp gasoline engine; the motors should be durable, but mounting them to some sort of steering mechanism proved challenging. Eventually, the team decided to bolt the wheels directly to the chassis and steer the tractor like a tank. Jakubowski and Cleaver even fabricated some chainlike treads and shot a video of the machine chewing up ground as it rumbled across the farm.
Thus far, the team has completed seven prototype machines: the tractor, a tiller, a hydraulic power unit, a computer numerically controlled plasma torch table, a drill press, a hole punch, and a compressed earth block press.
The performance of the block press, dubbed The Liberator, was impressive. Fed clayey subsoil from the farmstead, the press produced more than a dozen blocks per minute. One of the project's online supporters bought the first press produced last summer for $8,000.
Over the winter, there wasn’t much to do at the farmstead in Missouri. Jakubowski and Cleaver don’t keep livestock, and the combination of cold weather and unheated workshops makes working on new machines unpleasant.
Instead of lying fallow, however, the Open Source Farm team kept busy with off-site activities. Grants were being solicited from non-profit foundations to support the work, and readers of Jakubowski's Web site, opensourceecology.org, were encouraged to become “True Fans” through a contribution of $10 a month.
Jakubowski also traveled through the fall and winter, giving talks in New Jersey, Ohio, and California, and meeting with others who share his vision of a technological system that individuals could master completely.
One of Jakubowski's stops was at a meeting of the Steam Automobile Club of America in Berrien Springs, Mich. There, he presented a short talk about the latest technology he wanted to tackle—a simple steam engine for power production. To Jakubowski, the benefits of a steam engine are manifold: steam engines require external heating, and so are basically fuel agnostic; they can operate at lower temperature and pressure than internal combustion engines, meaning they can be mechanically simpler and use cheaper materials; and because the technology is less than state of the art, most of the important advances are no longer under patent protection.
A video clip of the talk was instructive. The thin, young man giving the talk was met respectfully, but skeptically by the roomful of older, solidly built steam buffs. On the one hand, most seemed happy that Jakubowski was looking into small steam engines as a viable technology and flattered that he came to them looking for guidance.
But there also seemed to be a bit of discomfort with Jakubowski, who wanted to strip away a lot of the intricacies of early 20th century engines and their elaborate valves and linkages. There were offers of assistance, but the general gist was that a practical steam engine would have to look a lot more like the ones these hobbyists have lovingly restored than the simple design that Jakubowski was investigating.
There are also some fundamental issues that call into question the decision to pursue steam power. The ethos of simple and cheap seems to work well enough with the machines that Jakubowski and Cleaver have built to now; indeed, there are some real advantages over expensive, proprietary hardware. But steam engines are subject to the laws of thermodynamics, and low-temperature steam under relatively modest pressures doesn’t provide a lot of energy for an engine to extract. Even the best small steam engines have efficiencies of around 10 percent, and one could expect that a dirt simple engine made in home-based workshops would perform at an even lower level.
Taking a few percentage points off the efficiency of a large steam turbine or an advanced gas turbine would provide an economic disadvantage, but not a disaster. But small steam engines operate at low efficiencies to begin with, so losses start to bite into effective power output quickly.
Some of the items on the resulting list are the greatest hits of industrialism over the past 200 years: the steam engine, the combine, the induction furnace. Other bits, such as the plastic greenhouse sheeting and raised-bed organic gardening, would look at home in the Whole Earth Catalog
If Jakubowski anticipates a world where farmer-engineers grow their own fuel, the difference in efficiencies between a small steam engine and a diesel or spark-ignition engine could be critical.
It might turn out to be a blind alley. But rather than fussing over a set of calculations, Jakubowski would rather build a prototype and see what he can learn. When prototypes cost hundreds of dollars, rather than millions, you can get away with that.
We live in an age of the so-called Knowledge Economy, but Jakubowski and his colleagues still have the old faith in built things. The underlying theme of the Open Source Ecology project is that a life spent making the things you need—food, clothing, shelter, tools, material comforts—is more satisfying than living in an abstracted world where we manipulate words and data in exchange for goods shipped halfway around the world.
Set aside some of the New Age jargon that Jakubowski couches it in, and the idea can be seen as decidedly old-fashioned.
But it's not at all Luddite. Computing power is definitely part of the vision. The two-axis plasma torch table the team built uses stepper motors controlled by a laptop computer. The block press relies upon magnetic sensors and an Arduino processor to time the automated hydraulic parts. And the project uses Web sites to produce collaborative designs, which are then rendered in a 3-D CAD program and blogged about to raise money.
These guys aren’t Amish—they want to build their own car. They believe in technology. They just want it created and used at a more human scale.
That's similar to the promise of Rep-Rap, MakerBot, and other “desktop” 3-D printers. Instead of consuming the output of mass industrial production and settling for whatever someone else decided to make, people using these printers will be able to design exactly what they need and print it up just as they need it. Instead of an economy of scale, we might have an economy run at human scale.
But the reality of Rep-Rap is quite different. In spite of its name, the printer is not self-replicating. At present, Rep-Rap makes only plastic parts, meaning the main metal structural supports and the coils in the stepper motor and every electronic circuit have to be obtained outside the system. It's hard to imagine how something like Rep-Rap could be entirely self-replicating.
Likewise, there are certain roadblocks in Jakubowski's concept of self-sufficient human-scale high-tech communities. Electronics is a huge one: how self-sufficient can you be if you need Arduino boards and computers to run your equipment? And while scrap steel is common enough, can such small-scale manufacturers reliably source rubber and copper and certain plastics?
“Sure, right now we have to buy components: engines, hydraulics, hand tools, materials,” Jakubowski said. “But to be a truly resilient economy, we have to start making those things as well. Once we master the gross technology, we go down to open sourcing the individual components, and recursively down to the very feedstocks to make the components. So eventually, we could be smelting aluminum from clay and smelting silicon from sand.”
In the nearer term, Jakubowski hopes that an online fundraising push will enable prototypes for the remaining technologies on their list to be built over the next two years. To develop things that quickly, the group will have to rely on outside machinists to construct the machines from open-source plans.
And once that's done, the real test of Jakubowski's idea begins: You have the 50 tools needed to create a civilization from scratch? What then?