This week we’re talking about open source industrial machines. We’re joined by Marcin Jakubowski from Open Source Ecology where they’re developing open source industrial machines that can be made for a fraction of commercial costs, and they’re sharing their designs online for free. The goal is to create an efficient open source economy that increases innovation through open collaboration. We talk about what it takes to build a civilization from scratch, the Open Building Institute and their Eco-Building Toolkit, the right to repair movement, DIY maker culture, and how Marcin plans to build 10,000 micro factories worldwide where anyone can come and make.
Linode – Get $100 in free credit to get started on Linode – Linode is our cloud of choice and the home of Changelog.com. Head to linode.com/changelog OR text CHANGELOG to 474747 to get instant access to that $100 in free credit.
Render – Get $100 in free credit to give Render a try! Plus they’re going to assign a world-class engineer to your account to provide guidance and answer any questions. Render is built for modern applications and offers everything you need out-of-the-box — one-click scaling, zero-downtime deploys, built-in SSL, private networking, managed databases, secrets and config management, persistent block storage, and Infrastructure-as-Code. Send an email to
email@example.com to get your free credits.
LaunchDarkly – Test in production! Deploy code at any time, even if a feature isn’t ready to be released to your users. Wrap code in feature flags to get the safety to test new features and infrastructure in prod without impacting the wrong end users.
Fastly – Our bandwidth partner. Fastly powers fast, secure, and scalable digital experiences. Move beyond your content delivery network to their powerful edge cloud platform. Learn more at fastly.com.
Special thanks to Josh Fong for requesting this episode back in July 2020.
- Marcin’s TED Talk
- Open Building Institute Kickstarter
- From this post on Vice/Motherboard — Kyle Schwarting is a farmer by trade, and a hacker by necessity. His farm, about 20 minutes outside the city limits of Lincoln, Nebraska, is full of tractors and agricultural equipment, which he picks up in various states of repair from fellow farmers, fixes up, and resells. “I would say what I’m doing is hacking,” Schwarting tells me, gesturing to a Windows laptop and a USB-to-tractor cable he Frankensteined himself.
Click here to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
So we are slightly off the beaten path today, but not too far. We’re talking Open Source Ecology. Marcin Jakubowski, the executive director of Open Source Ecology. I’ve gotta give a thank to Josh Fawn, a listener back in July; he asked us to have Marcin on the show. I certainly would not have found this project myself, so thank you, Josh. I hope you enjoy this conversation. Marcin, thanks for coming on the Changelog.
Yeah. Thanks, Josh, for recommending me. That’s great.
Yeah, he called you a pioneer in the open source world with your organization. That’s a strong sale, and I went and watched your TED talk, and it’s fascinating stuff. Why don’t you just give us the story that you gave in that TED talk briefly? How you came to do this Global Village Construction Set. Really fascinating.
I would have liked innovation stuntman better. But okay… [laughter]
Innovation stuntman, yes. Very good.
Okay, so what’s the story behind the Global Village Construction Set, the work that we’re doing - it’s about creating an open collaborative paradigm for how we do product development in general. So that’s the current work we do. The story started on a ground where after a PhD program I got a PhD in fusion. I was totally alienated from the work that I was doing, because I felt that I was getting farther removed from relevant, pressing world issues… So I started a farm in Missouri. I started doing some farming – basically, an experiment to see “Okay, what would a community that actually does things right look like?” So I started with some farming, and things like that. Got a tractor, then it broke, I paid to get it repaired, then it broke again… Pretty soon I was broke.
So I had all my fancy degrees and all that and I learned I had no practical skills. There is really no good equipment and tools and techniques that I needed to do this work; they just weren’t around. Either expensive, or proprietary… So I started thinking a lot about open source, how do we create a – if somebody wants to do that, how do we do that? So let’s do open source with hardware.
[03:59] The open source part comes from the PhD program; my school, back in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I wasn’t even allowed to talk openly about my work to other groups, because the research groups were competing… And then when I thought about it, it’s like “Wow, this is pretty wasteful. We cannot really learn, even in an institution that’s supposed to be public, for the public good…” So I really looked into that issue of technology and what can we do better about it, and it’s really about creating a collaborative way to develop things, as opposed to proprietary. That’s a big theme, and that’s what we’re working on.
Was it that constraint that got you in open source though, where you couldn’t speak? You were sort of muzzled, so to speak? Was that what made you look at open source, or this idea of freely-sharing ideas, and in the case of open source software, actual code and actual software? And in the case of ideas, the idea of free and open source, or free and available to other people, where it’s an ecosystem or a community - is that what got you into that, this muzzle? Or was it sort of actual open source software and actual open source communities that got you excited?
Both. Actually, it’s a combination of a few factors. First of all, I was completely alienated from the work that I was doing. Second, in my group – so we were using Macs, and then somebody one day said “Hey, I’ve got this Linux thing on my desktop”, and they showed it to me and it’s like “Oh, wow. Interesting. It’s something you can download, you can modify, it’s free, people contribute to it…” I was completely blown away, because I thought there’s only one way to do things… Like, okay, there’s Mac and Windows. So when somebody’s showing me that, it was like “Wow, there are different ways to do things”, and I learned about the whole philosophy behind that project, and I started thinking “Well, how do you apply that to a more collaborative system like in the work that we were doing, where I wasn’t able to communicate openly?” So that part of just thinking about really the terrible waste, the reinventing of the wheel that happens - I think that was the primary driver behind that.
And there’s also the concept of just – there’s Madison; it’s a radical, it’s a very progressive town, so I kind of got radicalized there to much more than just my science; like social issues, and environmental issues… And thinking about the world of technology, I was like “Well, why can’t we make a better life for everybody on this planet?” It is just unacceptable that some people have, and a lot of people are left out of the fun that we’re having with our DSLR cameras and podcasts here…
There’s a lot of depravation happening at the same time that the technology of humankind is so powerful, and amazing. We can go to the Moon, but we can’t arrange our human business on this planet so that everybody benefits. And that was that philosophical disconnect between, okay, me studying this fancy stuff, and not being able to do really anything with it. I felt powerless. So I started the project. I said “Okay, let’s start an experiment. Basically, a civilization startup experiment.” I still kind of call it this; it’s basically “What does it take to make a civilization from scratch? How do you go about that?” You need some technology and you need some sociology. So that’s kind of the origins.
Yeah. Extracting these resources etc.
How did you jump from a PhD in fusion, buying a tractor, farming, to building your own tractor? Because that to me seems like there is a gap in skills there… And eventually, you open sourced these plans for building 50 different machines. So not just tractors; you went from “My tractor’s broken” to “I’m building my own tractor from first principle”, so to speak. Where did you acquire that knowledge? Was it just you powered through it, one step at a time? Or did you consult somebody? How did you learn how to build these things?
[07:51] Definitely – and you might think that “Oh yeah, a PhD in physics is like you might have some practical [unintelligible 00:07:52.21]” No, I wasn’t prepared for any of this. This is about turning wrenches and designing things from scratch… Because typically, you work with established things. So it was the need, the fire in the pants to do something; the tractor that I bought - it was a 1970’s tractor, it cost like $5,000… And it just breaks. The transmission goes out, I’ve gotta repair it. And one week from then it completely broke again. I said “This is not sustainable. I can’t do this. I can’t have a $2,000 bill one week, and then I don’t know what’s gonna happen next time. So I said “Okay, I’m still committed to this amazing experiment of seeing how technology could be appropriate, and this is just the very opposite of appropriate technology.” So I’m saying, “Okay, this is a fundamental flaw here, and I will not be able to do this, nor will anybody else be able to do this if we don’t solve this question of appropriate technology.”
I studied a lot of this – like, during the PhD program I did not study that in my formal work, but nights and weekends, and a lot of time I’d spent getting into all this stuff and almost getting kicked out of my PhD program because I was doing too much of it… But then I found – you know, in the theory in the books it says “Yes, we need appropriate technology”, but then when I got my first-hand look at what that really means, it’s like “You need a machine that needs to work.” And I wanna be able to fix it. I wanna be able to maintain it for a lifetime, not be subject to planned obsolescence…
So I said “Okay, I’m gonna build this myself, design it so that anyone can have access to it.” And then - okay, the good thing that I did get from the PhD was the first principles thinking that you mentioned. So I said “Okay, well, what’s a tractor?” Okay, it’s this box, this frame with wheels, and drive, an engine, and some hydraulics… And you start reverse-engineering from the ground-up. But the surprise was really good; these things work. You get yourself some engine, some steel, some hydraulics, and the stuff just works, with very basic design. And then you wanna strip it down to the most essential design, that’s as simple as possible (but no simpler), that still works, does your thing, and is designed for you being the actual owner of it; you own it and you control it.
So that was definitely a breakthrough experience for me. It started actually – it did not start with the tractor, it started with the brick press; both brick press and the tractor about the same time… Because the fire under the pants was “Okay, here’s a raw piece of land that I ended up on. I need a house. I need to do some agriculture here”, so those two tools were the first in line. The very first one was the brick press, which we used to build the first workshop, a bunch of houses that we have here… But I basically said, “Yeah, if we wanna be in control of our destiny, we have to have some control over the equipment base… Not be completely subject to what the industry is giving you.”
Explain that brick press. What is that exactly? Since that’s the first piece you started with.
Yeah, so the brick press is an earth compactor. So it takes soil from beneath your feet and it compresses that into structural block. You can add some stabilizer, some cement to it, or you can press without any cement; basically, you get construction-grade engineered material from the local material. If you have clay soil, you can compress that and you get bricks that are between 300 and 1,000 PSI or so, which is plenty for construction. It’s kind of like Adobe, but the technological version, where you’re compressing a regular-shaped block from that. You can see plenty of videos of us pressing thousands of these, piles of these… But that’s the first thing we did.
And the cool thing is you’re probably standing on it. You’ve got your materials right beneath your feet.
Yeah. So that process is – you build yourself a machine for a couple of thousand bucks, and then you can press material for your house. That’s great. Low-cost, but a lot of labor. So that’s the learning there.
[11:53] Did you ever bump against the Right to Repair scenario? Is some of that in this story? Because it wasn’t really mentioned in your TED talk, a lot of your story, but I’m assuming it’s at least a part of the story, to some degree.
Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s essentially in there; it’s been there from the very beginning, since the tractor broke. But I didn’t call it Right to Repair. That kind of came out maybe a decade after that, or a few years after that. But definitely, I completely identify with the Right to Repair, for example on your tractors, where now John Deer is putting proprietary equipment that you don’t even own the software, and if it breaks, you’re completely dependent on the service from John Deer. There’s a lot of pushback from that, because people are saying “Hey, I don’t really own this thing. This thing is owning me.”
Yeah. Can you defend their side of it, just by any example? I know you have your own side of it, but can you defend at least the commercial side of their thinking behind that, by any means?
Oh, yeah. It’s clear. It’s about control. So if you’re a business in the modern system of commerce, you’re beholden to your stockholders to maximize profit. One way to do that is you concentrate information, you concentrate the services… You don’t empower the customer to do all the things that would make the thing lower-cost.
To give you some numbers… Today, a farmer will go out and splurge with like half a million dollars’ worth of equipment that depreciates 10% per year. Like $50,000 per year. Well, so you’re talking about a ten-year lifetime before you’ve gotta snap up that half a million dollar deal again. Well, think about it; ten years - you might say “That’s pretty cool. I grew all these beans and corn, and made this money”, which actually is marginal these days… So they’re on this hamster wheel of keeping up with the system. But then the thing emerges, “Well, what if you had your right to repair?” You’d absolutely drive your cost lower; it’d be lower cost to repair things.
To give you a great example - so the tractor that I use right now has modular parts. It’s got a modular engine unit. If that thing breaks, I take a little hoist to that, and take off the power – it’s a modular hydraulic power unit with an engine. I take that off and in an hour I put another one, and I’m off running again. So it wasn’t a week or two trip to the repair man, and my productivity declining. It’s something that I can control, very low cost… So it’s designed to be a modular lifetime design, which you can if it’s open source. If you’re proprietary, you’re not gonna have that; you’re gonna make more money as the company, because you’re providing that service… So the choice is yours. But which one will you take?
Yeah. Lower cost, of course. [laughs]
Yeah, you want that. And you also have to kind of be willing to get your hands dirty and build the thing, which…
Not everybody is.
…there’s reasons to do that. It’s a compelling case, with price, and ownership, and the ability to modularly repair it over the years. Let’s take the tractor that you – I don’t know, is the tractor that you built back when you first started this different than the tractor that you’re running now? I assume you’ve got–
Oh, yeah. There’s been six iterations so far. So each one is different and improved. We’re building the next iteration this year.
Okay. So let’s take your current iteration tractor, because I’ve got a small piece of land out here, and I’ve been looking at tractors just because I’ve got stuff that I’d like to do, and I’ve got a John Deer nearby, and I’m like “Man, they’re so stinkin’ expensive. I’m an amateur farm/outdoorsy person”, but I wonder, if I start it tomorrow and I took your Global Village Construction Set - I’m sure the tractor is in there; you’ve got 50 different machines in there… If I just took your tractor plan, what would it take for me to get that thing built? Cost, time… I have software skills, I can turn a wrench, but I don’t have a lot of tools myself that you take to build things; I can’t weld. So what would it take?
Okay, so let’s get a reality check here. So first of all, we don’t have the 50 machines yet. We’ve got about eight or so prototypes.
Okay, so that’s the plan.
[16:01] Or there’s about 27 that we’ve prototyped; there’s about seven or so that are at the product release stage. For example, download our blueprints for the brick press, the tractor, the house, the 3D printer, the torch table. Make a business out of it. Go ahead. But there’s only a handful of those right now. And the big thing right now is about the enterprise side, so that you right now have a choice not to go to John Deere, but to the Open Source Ecology version tractor and get that as a turnkey service.
So right now you might say “Okay, how do I build it?” I don’t know, forget about it. [laughter] No, I mean only if you’re die-hard and you’re willing to go through a steep learning curve are you gonna do it.
But that’s the thing. The big surprise for me was that that side of the enterprise development is not taking off like the design – like, here, we’re doing this the whole time. People are not replicating. It’s hard. Altogether there’s been like a dozen or two replications of – about a dozen of the brick press, several of the tractor… But it’s a huge different story between the prototype that you can make work, and you’re hacking it the whole time, and a commercial product. So this is where we’re at right now - we’re at the stage of getting all this to the commercial traction stage, and that’s basically where we wanna succeed.
Because right now this has not succeeded. You have difficulties; if I were to give you a number, it’s probably a thousand times harder than software, realistically speaking. With the materials, with the learning curves, the reality. You’re not moving electrons, you’re moving atoms, and this is hard; this is logistics, this is parts that are completely – you’ve got a thousand different parts you can choose from. You’re working from a system that’s got 200 years of industrial inertia, of proprietary development. You’re dealing with part suppliers that you have a whole junkyard of cars, and you can’t even make a single working car from all of that because all the parts are different. There’s some challenges.
So I think listener Josh really pegged you; pioneer is really what you’re doing, because you’re having to really lay groundwork here in order to make this thing bootstrapped.
Exactly. And initially, I’m thinking “Oh yeah, TED talk time, all this amazing interest, and all of that”, but it’s a hard management thing, because to take it from a prototype to the product, it’s like you’ve gotta do not one or two prototypes, you’ve gotta do 10 or 100. I mean, literally, it’s kind of like software, where you fix a bug - done. Okay, next bug. Next bug. But how many bugs do you have? Thousands. Right? It’s the same with hardware. You’ve fixed one thing, you learn a new thing, and then you can keep improving this and improving this, and it takes a long time.
Well, then how do the proprietary guys do that? Well, my answer to that is that their equipment is crap. In general. I mean, it’s pretty high-performance, but it’s nowhere near what it could be if you unleash a collaborative effort to do so. That’s what we’re going after.
And it’s not because the incentive structure don’t actually align for that to be the case, right?
Oh, explain that question?
The incentive structures of the business. So like, light bulb manufacturer - is it in his best interest that his light bulb lasts forever? No, it’s not, because he wants you to buy the next light bulb.
I’m saying the incentive structure of the economy doesn’t make it so that John Deere wants to build the tractor that never breaks down, right? It just doesn’t make any sense.
I don’t wanna put bad intentions on John Deere people, it’s just like that’s the incentive structure of the business, right?
It’s a structural evil, yes.
Structural evil… [laughs]
We’re within a paradigm that makes this happen. Now, that’s very rational for John Deere to make that tractor and not collaborate, have the best one, boost up the sales, and so forth. But the opposite of that is what if John Deere and Mahindra & Mahindra (the biggest tractor company in the world from India), all the other ones, Case, Bobcat - what if they all collaborate to make this super-machine? Well, we can make a case that it could be better, and you clearly can say that.
[20:11] For example, to reify that a little bit - if you go out on the internet, if you know anything about Diesel engines, people will say that there is no one perfect Diesel engine. And I’m looking at that like “Huh.” I thought about this decision. It’s like “Okay, is that because there’s so many different options, and this and that?” Everyone complains about a Diesel engine; like there’s whole religions, “This is my favorite Diesel engine. This is my favorite engine. That one.” And each one of them says that “Okay, this is better because of this, but it doesn’t have this, that and the other.” And I’m saying “Why can’t it have all? Why can’t it not be actually the best engine?” And it’s actually an issue we’re struggling with right now, because we don’t really have a great engine to work from. And we’re gonna have to open source that in the future.
But that’s an interesting story - the incentives there are to keep mediocrity as a status quo. We might think we have unleashed radical, crazy innovation, AI, all of this, this and that… But I think we’re still in the stone age until we learn to collaborate.
I think that’s a human flaw though, to some degree, or maybe something that we can key off of, which is that it’s very difficult for us to think about three generations from now, and to sacrifice our lives, to some degree, or some financial upstream upside, whatever it might be, to pay the sacrifice necessary or to create a system that is like you’re trying to do, or in those means, and not have the incentive structure that Jerod’s talking about… Because we can’t really see one or maybe two generations down the line of our humanity. We’re sort of in the now, and we’re sort of selfish as individuals. We say we’re not, but we definitely are in our actions. And you see that by having incentive structures that really just focus on the quarter, the half-year versus the ten years down the line.
Some of us think and transcend that thought pattern, and are visionaries and innovators and pioneers like you might be, but not the collective at large, and that’s where I think it’s very difficult for us, too. Because we’re sort of like slinky. Some of us go forward, while the rest of us catch up, and it’s sort of like this constant move and flow of thinking about the long-term future and doing what’s necessary to plan for that long-term future. We’re not all in, literally, all-in on that idea.
[laughs] We’re not all all-in.
Yeah, that’s right, all all-in.
That’s right. Well, there’s friction, there’s inertia, there’s other challenges in your life that just take priority over certain ideals or certain moves. This is fascinating. So you’re not there yet… And the TED talk is like a decade ago. 2011(ish), timeframe?
A long time ago.
Yeah, so you’ve really been working on this… How do you sustain, what have you been doing in the meantime? Are you homesteading for the most part? I know you’re building all your own stuff, but financially, how are you making a living, and all that?
Our revenue model is actually workshops and selling some of the machines. For example, right now we sell the 3D printer kits, so you can go online and buy a kit from us. That’s how we bootstrap.
We also run workshops, where for example we’ll take a dozen or two dozen people over a weekend and we build a 3D printer that they take home. Or we do other things, like we go over a weekend and build a tractor. So crazy things like that. Up to five-day events where we build a Seed Echo-Home. Actually, this house that I’m in right now has been built over five days with 50 people. So we do these swarm-based build events; it’s part of the experience economy - both products, education and experience economy are our revenue model. That’s what we’re doing.
[23:56] Initially, we started some true fans crowdfunding, did a couple of Kickstarters… The next milestone is just get the revenue streams happening. We’re planning to build and sell these houses. It’s a 1,000 sqft. house that you can build with a friend in one week for $50,000, or we can give you a turnkey version of that for 130k, including land. That’s our next major milestone. And we think we’re gonna get some traction with this, because everyone wants a home.
Yeah. I mean, buy some acreage if you can, scoop some of that up and plan for that… But who’s coming to these workshops? What kind of person comes there?
Computer programmers who need practical skills, survivalists… [laughter]
There’s people who are makers, educators… It’s a very broad crowd of freaks from society; both mainstream and progressive people. It’s a wild bunch that basically want - the common theme is we wanna take charge of learning practical skills, building things… Just getting away from that. The same thing that I faced - I got my PhD and then I could not build a thing. I had no practical skills. There’s that big gap… It’s also now a big political divide, the huge gap between the intellectual world, the world of finance capital, and the productive people who are still in touch with producing things.
I must say, a long time ago, we’ve been makers; we lived in a jungle, and slayed an animal, we built things… That kind of instinct is still quite deep within a lot of people. Everyone has that. You wanna have your agency show, and the best way to show that is through manifestation of physical objects. So that’s the kind of drive that unifies a lot of people that come to our workshops.
So we’ve been talking about bootstrapping… You’re bootstrapping this whole new thing, and you wanted to start with the concept of “What do you need foundationally?” First principles to bootstrap a civilization. This is the Global Village Construction Set as the goal. 50 different industrial machines (I think) is eventually where it’s headed… But bootstrapping - you’ve gotta start somewhere; you’ve gotta tie the boots and then pull yourself up by the straps… I don’t know.
How do you bootstrap a civilization is the question.
Yeah, one property of the system is that it’s a bootstrapping recursive kind of a thing, where one machine builds the next one. So there’s a logical sequence that we can propose right now, starting with some of the smaller things and getting into the larger things… And that would be as a case example. And of course, the first example - a 3D printer relies on a bunch of technology. But take a look at this. Say you have a 3D printer; with the 3D printer, the way we design it we can actually make parts to produce a CNC torch table which cuts steel, and then you can take that steel, and in an automated cutting process you get all the steel for your tractor. Then you take your tractor and you can build your house. So you can see that there’s a logical progression there.
But of course, at the very base is “Okay, where did I get all that steel, and plastic, and all of that, too?” and the answer is there’s other machines that produce materials from raw feedstocks. The whole point is to take rocks, sand, plants, soil, water - take those things and convert that. That’s where all the modern civilization comes from. So what are the machines that produce that?
[27:57] We have some of the things like an induction furnace, that for example can melt steel to generate virgin steel from scrap. For example, in our scenario right now we can go take all the waste scrap metal, or go to a junkyard and turn that into virgin steel from your tractor. You have things like plastic extrusion, so you can do 3D printing, or make the plastic from waste plastic; that’s kind of a low-hanging fruit, plastic recycling. So you’re shredding plastic, you’re remelting it, making it into 3D printing filament, or rubber filament that you can print with.
For each part of civilization there’s a machine that does the thing. Like digging rocks - you dig rocks, you burn that rock and you turn it into concrete. Now you’ve got your concrete foundation. You can go through that kind of a simple thinking process for every single thing. Rocks - that’s like iron ore. Melt it, and you’ve got steel. Steel concrete plants… You’ve got plastics… All the present oil-based economy also can be gotten out of trees; it’s Carbon. So you’ve gotta know a little bit of chemistry for that. You’ve got some industrial engineering there.
But it’s all very rational. Once you start wrapping your head around the whole process, you say “Wow, this is really cool. And all these resources are all around us. This is beautiful.“So that’s the bottom line right now. I’m in a very optimistic standpoint. I’m a techno-utopian, but not the Diamandis style, one of AI and computers and all of that, but more like “Let’s get to the bottom of the resources and the whole machinery source that is open source and reproducible over the world, so other countries can leapfrog to the same state of excellence that we have attained here”, and so forth.
Yeah. Because the path to build those kind of tooling isn’t there in the proprietary world. Or it is, and it’s expensive, and it probably is close-doored; you have to have a special key, or a card, or a title, or a company style or something like that to get access to these brands that have this tooling. So your path is accessible, even if it takes motivation, whereas the other side, the fork in the road may have many hurdles, if not straight up roadblocks.
So let me address one point about this - how do we make this easier for people? So the idea is, it’s like – Jerod, I said “Forget about it.”
Yeah, you did.
Well, now that we have the local open source microfactory in your town, where instead of going to Walmart and buying a thing, you can go into a place where you can get a turnkey product, or sign up for a manufacturing build where you actually build that yourself. And the thing is when you build it yourself, now you own it; you can repair it.
I think tons of people do that.
Yeah. This has been my desire for a very long time. A buddy of mine – I’m like, I’m not a woodsman, I’m not a very good woodworker; I don’t have the tools, I don’t wanna [unintelligible 00:30:44.12] I’d love it if there was something nearby that had all the necessary tooling, so I can go, when I wanted to; maybe it’s similar to a gym membership, where I pay a monthly fee or some sort of membership fee or something like that, and I have access to this club or this place… Because it takes money to make these things go around, right? But I have access to space and tooling that I may desire to have and own in my own home, but just don’t have the space for it. And in this case, if you have these kind of things all over the place, then rather than Jerod’s question to you and you say “Forget about it”, it’s more like “Just go down to your local open source –” What did you call it, open source manufacturing…?
Open source microfactory, yeah.
…and take a class and build the thing yourself by renting two hours of time in this space, and build the thing. And when it breaks in the future, as you said with your machine or your engine, hoist it up, take the part out, go back to the open source microfactory, rent the two hours of time on the machines, and remake the part.
[31:48] Exactly. And that’s the theme behind the makerspace/hackerspace movement - those kinds of spaces currently are not really set up for real industrial productivity on a small scale. It’s largely in the education/tinkering kind of a space. Well, basically, think of the hackerspace with a business model; here’s how we actually produce things. And the thing that’s actually missing – people think that there’s all this open source hardware, open source this, open source that, instructables… “Oh yeah, you can find anything.” No, it’s actually not the case. For anything that’s actually a very good product, very little of that exists. There’s some stuff that’s out there, but the sad fact we run into right now is that anything that’s actually really good tends to still hide and become proprietary. There’s a lot of cases of open source hardware projects that [unintelligible 00:32:34.28] and things like that.
But just to take the limit of what you have to be doing - you have to be able to take metals from modern civilization; you have to be able to take metals, machine them, and make ball bearings. Ball bearings, I would say, is like the number one technology that allows the world to spin around, no pun intended. It’s the core of industrial machines that spin, that are for example like your CNC mills, your car’s wheels… So if you can make the bearing - which is a relatively simple device, not too complex; a grinder that takes little balls and actually grinds them into perfect shape - that level of type of equipment, when you start thinking about “Oh, okay. Ball bearing machine. Metal processing equipment that you can actually now start making steel.” And the good thing is though that none of this takes mega-factories of yesterday. This is all doable in a very small-scale facility. Here we have a 4,000 sqft. workshop. You can do all of this in the workshop. So our goal is to have that workshop, you’ve got an induction furnace, you’ve got some CNC machines, you’ve got a torch table, you’ve got 3D printers and other hand tools… You can build just about anything. That’s a business model to develop.
Yeah. These are big ideas, but sometimes to get to the next phase you have to have focus. So you’d mentioned business model in terms of selling 3D printers, workshops, things like that… You know, when you take all this knowledge of making civilization, where are you placing that focus at now? One part is obviously building homes, but is that where it begins? You mentioned ball bearings, and different things… How do you focus what you’re trying to do to get to that next stage, to sort of keep iterating?
Yeah, the rollout–
Rather than simply building tractors, what are you focusing on?
Yeah, the rollout right now, the project that we’re doing right now is the Seed Eco-Home, the house that I’ve mentioned… And because everyone needs a house, we’re thinking that’s gonna be a great way to generate revenue through a very efficient, lean, well-designed thing. We’ve made several prototypes, we think we know what we’re doing.
But at the same time, you also say “Okay, so I’m gonna start me this house-building enterprise”, and we’re gonna produce, ideally, if everything works out, hundreds of these this year, or at least get hundreds of orders, so we can execute, which means we’re also training people to build. But when I think about that enterprise, it’s like, “Okay, well, what about a 3D printer or a tractor?” Well, I need that tractor to do the foundation, to hoist the lumber, move things around, spread the gravel…” So we’re actually saying “Okay, we’re developing this house, but as side-projects along with that we are launching some other campaigns, so that we get the tractor to a final workable version, so we can lower the cost on the house business.” So that’s part of the house business. And the 3D printers that we’ve developed, we know we can make a lot of things that we use as materials for the house, like 3D-printed plastic lumber, like foundation forms that facilitate the foundation; all this kind of stuff you can do if you have a larger printer, and a waste-processing infrastructure for processing abundant classic waste into filament.
So actually, as part of the house, which is our main campaign right now, the side campaigns around the 3D printer and the tractor - we’re taking those also to the finish line, so that we can reduce the cost of the housing. That’s our current one-year/two-year program, to get these three (the 3D printer, the tractor, and the house) out the door, so that we can have widespread access.
[36:18] Is there anyone out there in the commercial spaces/proprietary spaces that don’t have your thinking that’s threatened by what you’re doing? And if so, how are they reacting?
I don’t think so. Not yet. Because they don’t understand it.
Or even the makerspaces that you mentioned, making your own things; there’s somebody out there that’s like – like, you’re not buying their thing, you’re not going to Lowe’s and Home Depot to buy the thing anymore; you’re sort of making it on your own, to some degree.
Yeah, that is if we had thousands or millions of replications… Which we don’t. So until the point where you have reached a billion-dollar scale or so, or at least like ten million, you’re hardly gonna be noticed.
We’ve only spent over the last decade or so about two million bucks. It’s shoestrings. So that’s part of the learnings; it’s like, you put forth this design - no, people are not gonna start going crazy and making all kinds of enterprises across the world, like I thought would happen with the brick press, or the tractor. When I first published the brick press, I thought “Wow, can I publish this? People are gonna steal it. The world’s gonna explode with this. What am I gonna do?” No, it’s far from it.
The thing is, it takes much more work to get there. And because society is missing what we call collaborative literacy, is why this is not going forward. We’re too used to the idea that “No, it can’t work. You can’t get this collaborative effort.” It’s just so foreign. I think there’s 200 years of industrial inertia. Everything is proprietary.
So when I first did the TED talk, I was like “Yes, beautiful. All these people coming at our door”, but you find that at the end of the day what can happen is limited. You need the infrastructure to harness that entire effort, but first, I think it’s the real intent of people who are committed to make this happen - that is not there yet. There’s a lot of shallow effort, but now the consistent model where you’re literally saying “Hey, we’re gonna reinvent the blueprints of civilization for how R&D goes.” That’s the bigger question.
I think this year is gonna be a place where we’ll get some serious cashflows happening, and then we can bootstrap to further R&D, that actually gets this thing done… Because on the calendar, on our roadmap, 2028 is when we finish the entire Global Village Construction Set. So we’ve got like six, seven, maybe eight years.
And you’re roughly six or eight in actual production readiness?
Yeah, there’s like six that are productizable right now; there’s 22 altogether… Actually, it’s more like 27 the last time I checked. But you have to consider that each one of these items is at least a million-dollar budget. So we did just about right… Two million bucks, we got one or two things out the door.
At the end of the day you have to take the due diligence to make it all happen. Corporate budgets are – you plop down a couple of million on a project, or a startup budget; you plop down a couple of million, you develop a first prototype, and you go to market. Things like that. That’s what it takes.
But in open source, of course, the idea is that “Oh, so many people contribute that we actually share the burden and people pay with their sweat equity and time, just like Linux, and we get it all done, to great benefit to everybody.” Well, it just hasn’t happened for hardware. It’s a mental block. Collaborative literacy.
Yeah. How do you get past that? What are you thinking so far to get past this collaborative literacy issue?
We’re optimistic and zealous. It’s simply you’ve gotta create a product, you’ve gotta use the old revenue generation thing, the bootstrap thing. The way we can scale this is by – we’re not taking any investment, because I don’t think that’s right. We’re generating this whole class of people who are third-parties that gain a share in the enterprise. That would kind of defeat the purpose.
[40:10] If we are to scale – because of course, your investors, they’re gonna wanna be proprietary, so there’s a little block there, let’s say. But how do you scale this to the world? Through open enterprise that anyone can replicate… But it has to rely on bootstrap business models, and that’s what we’re doing. So with the house, the idea is you’ve got a product, you sell it, and you reinvest, and that’s as simple as that. It’s not too much magic. Everyone’s got a job; we’ve gotta start creating jobs, where on your task queue instead of working for a corporation, you have a viable option to work in distributed production as generated by this kind of movement, in an open source microfactory. So it’s about revenue models that are created, that work and that can scale. That’s where we’re at. So it’s the product, the house. I mean, everybody wants a house.
Let’s talk about that then. Let’s talk about the house itself. I know it’s modular, there’s a lot of systems to it… You’d mentioned actually pressing bricks, you’ve talked about using plastic filaments from recyclables, and all these things. Break it down, what a home you build consists of.
Yeah, so the initial rollout – so it’s modular construction, and we’re not doing the first one with a brick press, because it’s much harder. So we’re using standard light framing… But it’s modular. So the offer is a 1,000 sqft. house; the initial model is two stories, but basically panelized, so that you can either build it yourself, or have a large event like we typically do in order to build it. So it’s not like you make the whole wall and you lift it up… You make 4x8 modules, standard construction material, like LEGOs; you build all the 4x8 panels, the walls, the windows, the doors, and then you put a roof, you’ve got a foundation and a roof on that, and then everything is designed to be highly modular.
I guess the unique thing is about the integration of the entire process to consider the most effective way to build, and a way that an unskilled person – I think the biggest thing is about allowing widespread access, which means that any single person can be able to do this. So the way it could work is you have your weekends off your job, you can build all the panels that go into this house, and then in one week, with a friend, you can assemble it, so you’ve got a complete house. The foundation has to be there already, but in one week, two people, eighty hours - build the whole thing from these pretty much pre-made modules that you can spend as much time as you need to get them done. That’s the kind of model. People have a job to do this, or you can just hire contractors to do this, or hire us. We’re training people to be able to do this.
It’s a very romantic notion to build your own house. It appeals – of course, the price advantages, the modularity, the fact that you can start small and add later, especially if you have land or you have the space to do that. In the suburbs you can’t really start small and build from there, but in certain contexts you can. But I think it’s wise to say that’s not the only plan, like “Hey, come build your own house”, because that’s not gonna scale. That’s not gonna reach enough people. You have to have the builders; do you have a name for these kinds of house – Open Building Institute, I know it’s an institute, but what’s the name for that kind of house? I’m looking for a – you know, there’s tiny homes, there’s mobile homes, there’s other kinds of homes…
It needs a brand name.
Yeah, what’s the name of these things? Like “I wanna have an Open House.”
The brand name is called Seed Eco-Home.
Seed Eco-Home, okay.
Why is it called Seed? Because it’s fully expandable. So the way we designed it right now, the initial design is 1,000 sqft, but it’s readily designed to add to it. So you can build a 2,000 sqft. model on top of that. We’re even pre-framing the places where you will add, so you have placeholders for doors, and stuff like that… But because the method is completely modular, you can do this, and the system is designed – so you can start with a little home, and it grows with your needs.
[44:14] So you don’t get one crappy home that you can afford, you get a small, quality home, and then as time goes on, you build on. Because any structure out there is – I mean, the intial build is actually about 20% of the entire building, when you consider all the maintenance, the additions, and so forth. Most of it happens afterwards. You can invest in something small that you can actually live with for a long time, because it’s flexible.
Is this idea, to some degree, focused on, let’s say, Western civilization, say U.S.-centric ideas? Or is it in other areas of the world? Because for example here in Texas Barndominiums are somewhat popular. People that want a workshop want a Barndominium, because they’re not really a barn, but they’re sort of a home and a workshop space. Or you’ve got – Jerod mentioned tiny homes; I don’t know if those are super-popular here in Texas. We’ve got lots of land, so tiny homes doesn’t make any sense. But building something on your land - you might have a lot of land and you might not wanna build a home; you might wanna build a second space, or sort of…
…an outpost or something like that that’s in your space. The idea of home in these cases may not so much resonate. But it might in other areas of the world, where technological advancements aren’t there, or accessibility isn’t there, or you have a culture that’s totally focused on and already bought into this idea of building your own tooling, or this open source tooling idea. They may not call it that, but they’re already doing it.
Well, the market here is – we initially thought “Yeah, this is the owner-builder model”, where everyone’s gonna build their own house. And after thinking about it, it’s like “Nah… They ain’t gonna scale.”
We need to provide a turnkey product that you can hire us and we give you a house. So that’s here. And that will bootstrap the further developments. For example the brick press – just doing some of the final refinements, we’ve found that the last thing we need on that is a soil mixer that allows you to mix cement and soil, so it can stabilize a block to make it waterproof. That’s like that last thing to make it fully industrial, and we wanna actually start selling these bricks as a viable building material, like you’d get at Menards.
But the initial level is “Okay, let’s get a house out there.” We know that you can make money selling a house, and we’re gonna invest that to refine the further developments. Now, we’re using our tractor to build it; we’re printing trim, plastic lumber and foundation forms, and plumbing fittings. And then we’re going on to “Now here’s your compressed earth block techniques. Here’s this sawmill, that if it’s readily accessible… Imagine a CNC sawmill; you drop a log to it and walk away, and then you’ve just got a pile of lumber. A techie person can do that.
So mixing the appropriate automation with within all this process and you can avail this unbridled productivity on a small scale. So that’s the vision, to just create more options for people, so you don’t just have Menards, or Lowe’s, Home Depot to go to… Because actually, right now there’s a real shortage of lumber, and the price of lumber went up three times.
Yeah, it’s insane this year.
It’s a practical thing too, if you can generate your local materials.
We’re finishing our basement right now, and I joke that it’s like we’re putting another house inside of our house, because the prices are astronomical… And it takes a really long time, because the builders are all just completely – they’re all building stuff; no builder is dying for your business right now, because they’re so busy… So it’s not a great time.
We really lucked out, because we did an addition to our home earlier this year, and we beat the timing in terms of our quote having to go up because of the cost of lumber… But we were just by the nick of time to begin, essentially, to beat that timeframe… Because it was gonna go up like three times the cost for the lumber part of it alone.
[48:12] So is there any real solution for that? I actually think there is, with 3D printing. Each person in the United States [unintelligible 00:48:17.29] of plastic waste, and it all goes to the trash. Imagine taking that abundant plastic waste and distribute it to the production of, say, plastic lumber. You can get plastic lumber at the big box stores too, but that’s a technology that – you’re taking the entire waste plastic stream, and with a basic shredder and a filament maker you can now start making filament, to now start printing large things. Why can’t you do that right now? Well, a spool of filament is $20. That would make for a very expensive 2x4, a $40-$50 2x4 if you did that. But if you reduce that price of the plastic by 10x to 100x by going to waste plastic streams, then you’re talking. So that’s part of the initiative. We’re gonna do this as a very explicit part of the Seed Eco-Home. Here’s now plastic lumber technology, and we can now lower barriers too, in this whole process.
Let’s talk about that, because this is something that I’ve become more and more aware of (I would say) over the last several years, but more so specifically very recently… I’m about to triple the size of the containers I use to hold my recyclables to put out on Monday, essentially… And I’ve become more and more aware of what I would typically throw into the waste bin that goes into a landfill, that could be - and my son, and my wife, we all say “We can make something out of that.”
So when we throw it away and we accidentally put it into the trash, which goes into the landfill, and it’s something we could make something out of, we say “Oh, we can make something out of that”, and we move it to the recycle section… Which typically it’s some variation of plastic; in some cases it’s aluminum, with tinfoil or whatever it might be… But in most cases, it’s something we can use and make something from, and I’ve personally seen my recyclable areas - from cardboard boxes from Amazon, or whatever we’re having shipped to our homes - quadruple in the last several months… And then also just my awareness of what I would typically just throw into the trash, that could be recycled. Is that what you’re saying there, like we could be more responsible as a society to (I suppose) be more aware of how we’re funneling that to enable this lower-cost, readily-available product for us to use and reuse?
Absolutely. The whole thing is about increasing our index of possibilities on industrial productivity on a small scale. I mentioned the open source microfactory. It’s a community center where you can build your car, build your telephone, build a cordless drill, things like that; you can do everything in that local microfactory. But take even smaller-scale, at the scale of a house. Actually, in your garage you could start something. But with a very simple thing like the plastic recycling infrastructure combined with 3D printing, imagine that I could see that becoming an appliance, just like you have a washer and a dryer today, where now you’re just throwing your waste plastic, and it’s simply a shredder, you pulverize it, you melt it down in just a little heat chamber, and extrude it into a thin filament. That is not rocket science. And now you’re printing.
And a lot of that is just going into a landfill and just sitting there.
Yeah. But let me tell you one thing, and this kind of goes back to our discussion about the lack of innovation today. The 3D printers have been the greatest example of an industry that’s been transformed by open source. However, if you look closer, from my perspective, innovation there is actually slow. For example, we have not to this date come up with a high-temperature 3D printer. Everything is pretty much ambient temperature or not super-high.
[51:55] There’s a way to do it where you have a heated build chamber that is so high-temperature that you can now print with any plastic… Because right now you can’t print with the simple stuff like polyethylene, polypropylene, [unintelligible 00:52:07.00] But because the things warp and you need an enclosed hot chamber that’s very hot, no single open source 3D printer in the world has that. It’s like, “Guys who came up with 3D printers 5-10 years ago as open source, why aren’t we going forward on it?” It’s also an example where there’s no clear mechanisms for how you collaborate; because once a company like PrusaPrinters gets success, they continue and they now run a business, and maybe not worry so much about open source anymore. That’s kind of typical. But okay, I’m kind of diverging here…
The missing link on that home recycling infrastructure is larger and high-temperature printers. Now, we’ve got a design and we wanna release that, and I hope we can change the world with this… But that’s one of the things that’s missing. So you’ve got your plastic recycling infrastructure, and a more capable printer that prints more than literally with like a couple of materials, like PLA and ABS, where you can’t hardly print with ABS even, because of the warping issues. You need this high-temperature chamber that does not yet exist. So this is a call for innovation and a case for making home recycling industry standard for every individual.
Is it because we could recycle, but then it would just sort of be extra out there, because there’s nothing that could take the material that we would recycle and use it? Is that what you’re saying? The pipeline is available there, but there’s nothing there to actually use what would come out of the pipeline, which is homeowners or people, everyday folks like you and I recycling?
There are some open source variants of machines that can shred and make plastic, but none that can do it very well… So there’s a technology gap there; none of it that is reliable or cheap enough to do it.
There’s really good grinders, but as far as open source filament maker that can make anything… You’d think there would be, and you read tons about it, “Oh yeah, this one and that one”, but actually a lot of them, the ones you can buy - they work with pellets, very highly controlled pellets that you buy off the shelf, which are still not recycled plastic, really. To recycle plastic you have to have much more tolerance; it takes more science, because you’re mixing all kinds of stuff in there, and rat hairs, and dust, and everything else. You’ve gotta have a process that’s designed to take everything… So it has to be a very robust, good system. That system does not exist yet. The filament maker that you can get - it will run typically from commercial pellets, not waste plastic, typically.
What would that system cost if it did exist? Because it seems like it still might be too expensive for an average homeowner to have one of those in their garage.
Yeah. We’d like to do one for about $2,000. That’s the price point for the shredding and filament-making infrastructure altogether.
It seems like a stepping stone to this in-home recycling thing where you can 3D print new things based on your empty Pepsi bottles, or whatever… Is what you’re talking about these open micro-manufacturing plants? What do you call them?
Open source microfactories.
Yeah. It seems like those are the linchpin for scaling this to different communities… Because I may not produce enough plastic at my house to have – I don’t know what margins or ratios you’d need in order to output some 2x4’s or whatever… But we could all take our recycling to this little factory, and then that provides the raw materials; they do the recycling there and the printing there, and then you have some sort of membership where you can just go get free 2x4’s, or cheap 2x4’s, because you’ve been participating… I can see that becoming a thing that people did… I just am not sure if the in-home thing is just gonna fit into too many people’s lives.
But having a thing down the road, where it’s like “I like these people. They help me build stuff. I’ll take my recycling down there”, and we can build a community around there.
What are your thoughts on that? It seems like that thing really could be how you deploy these concepts beyond–
You need a hub, a center.
…the real makers, the real enthusiasts.
Yeah, yeah. And that’s why our vision is 10,000 microfactories worldwide, just about in any city that you can do this at.
I don’t know your full idea and I’d love to hear more of this, but I think hearing it now I almost think if you could just prove the concept in one location very well… So you live in Missouri, right?
Prove it in one space and the community thrives from it, and then once center at a time. That would be my assumption of how it could work. The dream may be 10,000, but I think for you to prove the concept, get one area, especially where these kinds of ideas are adopted very well. Colorado is a place where that kind of stuff happens. In your area is where that kind of stuff happens. It’s like, find a few places where there’s a need, there’s a vacuum, and provide the space, the center.
Begin small, provide this membership, this access, these courses, or these trainings, or these classes, and maybe even build some homes in the area as part of your rollout… But start someplace and just prove it in that one space, and then roll that out.
And then video that thing, document it, start sharing it, show the success stories…
YouTube it constantly…
Right. Then you could start to get a groundswell.
By no means are we saying that’s easy. We’re just saying that’s how you do it.
Isn’t that what you’re doing? Are you doing that?
Well, that’s what we’re doing in September 2021. That’s this year.
There you go.
[59:43] That’s the idea. And let me just introduce another thing - in August, about the middle of the month we’re gonna do a weekend hackathon where we’re inviting 2,000 people to collaborate on publishing the blueprints for the house, and some work on the printer and the tractor. So we’re gonna do a very crazy, large-scale, collaborative event, that depends on still very simple tools. It’s open source FreeCAD, it’s Google Docs and collaborative editing, but we’ve got protocols where you can get masses of people, where with module-based design you can put a lot of people to collaborate together on precedented projects.
Sounds cool, man.
I love this idea because, you know, you were talking about housing and stuff like that, but I’d love to just build my own components to make an RC car, or something like that, or make my own skateboard, my own deck, or something else… Or maybe I don’t want it, but the idea of doing something like that, that–
Well, yeah, sure, my son’s skateboards. I used to skateboard. I was a skateboarder way back in the day; I can pass that torch on to my son.
You were a skater boy…
That’s right, yeah.
…back in your Offspring days?
That’s right, my Offspring days, when I was singing the songs… [laughter] That was a pre-show thing. But you know, it’s housing, but I think this maker culture, this hacker culture of - you said “manifesting physical objects”… Is that what you said earlier?
Yes, I did. Yes, sir.
That idea is happening in the microcontroller space with Arduino and Raspberry Pi, and RISC-V, and all these fun things that are happening out there, that are putting very high-technology small-computer abilities into everyday people’s hands…
And you combine that with the space that you’re creating, where literally whatever you wanna make is possible.
Maybe in this case you’re focusing on housing and the larger things of sort of like build civilization, because you need somewhere to live to have a civilization… But eventually, you just need a hammer, or you just need a skateboard, or an RC car… [laughter]
Yeah. A 3D printer is a very good, diverse-function tool that can get you there. Because if you think about any of these things that you mentioned, what are they made of? They’re made of plastic, a microcontroller, an electric motor, maybe some screws and bolts. And with that, you have just about anything. So if you can make 3D print as far as the physical structure of it, you can make your own circuits, too. You don’t have to make your own circuits, you’ve got Arduinos and plenty other microcontrollers, electric motors… Yeah, this is all feasible. As I say, the open source microfactory can be producing all these crazy things, and your customer skateboard that’s souped up jsut for your needs. You can make it custom exactly for what you need.
So you’d learn how to do open source CAD, or you can download a bunch of designs from the internet and then manifest it in an open source microfactory, where you have the appropriate tools.
The one thing I would like to add to that is you need some kind of a standardization. We call it toolchain degeneracy… That means you don’t have an infinite number of tools, with an infinite number of parameters that you can’t control as a global network, because there’s too much variation. You can never manage it properly. So reduce it to the single, best, most powerful set that’s easy to maintain. It’s kind of like the standards in software, or whatever. But don’t go nuts into creating a thousand different versions of a screw; just come up with a few of the most important ones, or one best engine. I just want one best engine; I don’t want 3,000 different ones.
So agree to some standards, collaborate… But once again, that’s the collaborative part. People are saying “Wait, how am I gonna make a living then?” So it’s about collaborating with modern technology and others, and computers, to make life easy for everybody, so we can do what we really want to do, not be working just so we can work. “What do we really want to do?” is the real question.
And the answer is skateboard.
That’s right. And build RC cars.
You’ve gotta get some ball bearings in there.
You’ve got your ball bearings right in there, and it’s the start of all civilization.
There you go. Ball bearings.
Ball bearings are really a useful thing.
[01:04:02.19] When you said that, I realized how useful ball bearings are. Anything that has motion with heavy objects or metal between metal, you need a ball bearing in between the two to reduce the friction and make them last for however long.
I notice that whenever I build – I build mountain bikes for fun, and I just noticed… Like, I’d never really built anything like that ever from scratch, from the frame up, and I realized in a bike in general, in the head of the bike, you’ve got two different ball bearings - the top part of it and the bottom part of it. You’ve got ball bearings in the pedal, you’ve got ball bearings in the cranks… They’re all over the place, and it’s just crazy. I never really considered how useful they are and how needed they are until I actually built something that required it.
Yeah. Not to mention that machine tools - if you have a precision CNC mill to mill a part, ball bearings are critical to that, so you get that precision. And then if you talk about space age or computer age, that’s where air ball bearings come in. That is super-precise structures where one fits in another; just a cylinder inside a round thing, that there is no friction, because [unintelligible 01:05:11.23] there’s nothing in there; there’s no oil, it’s just air. That’s called air bearings, and that’s what you have in turbines and high-vacuum pumps that make semi-conductors.
That’s true, yeah.
There’s nothing in there. Just air.
Yeah, it’s amazing.
Air bearing, yeah. Ball bearing.
That was the big idea too behind Elon Musk’s super-fast – I forget what that thing was called. It’s hyper-something, or other…?
Yeah, the Hyperloop was essentially that. It created vacuum, large-scale object, and you have no friction because you have no air. It’s essentially what you’re talking about, this idea of air is the bearing; the lubrication is the lack of friction.
Something like that; a little bit like that, yeah.
Something like that… [laughs]
Well, you know, that’s my gist of Elon Musk’s –
Coming from a fusion engineer, he’s like “Ehmm… More or less.”
Well, with the concept that there is no friction, yes. But in the air bearing there’s actually air in there. You want air. So it’s a little different. But the concept –
It’s not a vacuum, there’s actually in there.
Yeah, there’s air versus vacuum, and vacuum is what you’re talking about for the Hyperloop.
Leave it to me to get very particular and then be wrong, too. [laughter] So there you go.
That is kind of your trademarked move…
That is, yes… [laughter]
So one thing I’ve been wondering – there’s no easy way to segue this, but you’ve spent a decade now doing these things, and you’ve built probably machine after machine, and you’ve had failures and successes, you’re building houses… Surely there’s been some fun horror stories along the way, things gone terribly wrong, maybe lose a limb or a finger… You’re working with your hands, and you have a team doing this…
So any cool stories that have come out in the last decade of trying to bootstrap this idea?
Yeah. I did lose some body parts… My finger was a little chopped off in my brick press.
I can see that.
You can see that a little bit. But beyond that, nothing much… Outside of some psychological damage maybe…
And that’s why I actually meditate; I do that to keep my mental hygiene… But I think one of the biggest things that we learn is a lot of – if you talk about horror stories, it’s about the governance and personality kind of things. Because we basically open up this place where people can come; people come here for dedicated project visits… But one thing we learned is that without really sound governance and clarity of what people are doing, it turns into a Lord of the Flies situation pretty quickly. This is a place where we’re completely open to experimenting and doing different things, but if you don’t give people enough structure, people go nuts. So that’s kind of like the biggest learning - you need governance.
[01:08:01.21] I guess I would say I was more anarchistic-natured before. Of course, I came from higher education, I was in a system, but when I kind of dropped out of society and [unintelligible 01:08:10.13] to live on a raw piece of land as an independent thinker, I was like “Yeah, we wanna be responsible. I will not let government tell us what to do, and stuff like that. Adam, you’re from Texas, so you’re in the Texas Republic there…”
But I do appreciate much more about governance… And when you try to run an enterprise, there’s gotta be real clarity about operations, and what the rules that we follow are… So there’s been a lot of learnings of how to do that, because we’ve seen just personal conflict – I mean, I was exiled (you can say), voluntarily exiled. Things got so crappy with some of the personalities that I just had to leave for like a month from my own house. I mean, that’s crazy.
That kind of tells you, especially with what’s going on in politics, say about anarchy - it’s like, “No, we do need some governance. We’ve gotta have sound governance. We’ve gotta constantly improve it.” So definitely, this experiment here, the big challenge is gonna be governance. How do you get people to collaborate and work together on this piece of land? How do you do it in a way that’s better than that?
It’s the same struggle in open source software; you’re just not living on the same piece of land. But we have these conversations around codes of conduct, and how we’re going to conduct ourselves, and do we need those, do we not need those…? Why do we have to have those? It’s like, well, because some guard rails are nice to have, because they’re sometimes necessary to set expectations of how people are going to interact with each other in this area… And that’s actually a necessary thing.
It’s interesting - of course, we find that in the physical spaces as well, but we deal with it so much even just in the digital spaces that it’s kind of… There’s nothing new under the sun kind of idea, like “Yeah, these are the same problems that you deal with with your neighbors, and with your family, and with people around you, and then you go online and you deal with similar things.” Yeah, we do need some structure, for sure.
Yeah. So basically, take what you know with the online communities, but then the extra layer of challenges - okay, but you’re actually physically with these people. Think about that.
It’s harder to ghost. You can just peace out of an online community and be like “Yeah, I’m just not gonna contribute to this project anymore.” But when you live there…
When you say “these people”, do you mean people that come to visit for a bit for a class, or for a project, and they’re there for many weeks or months potentially, because it takes a long time?
Or do you mean like immediate family?
In the early days, when we started the project, pretty soon, as I said in my TED talk - people from all over the world began to show up. So we accept them. We basically invite people, “Yeah, come on, develop this thing with us. Build the tractor, build the next brick press”, or whatever. And that’s what I’m talking about, basically - dedicated project visitors who are there for a month or more; we kind of see that after three months, that’s kind of when they go nuts. [laughter]
You’re housing serial killers, or anything?
No, not yet, but… The thing is that unless you have a rigorous structure for so-called HR (human resources), managing people, setting expectations and so forth, people need that. And me - we’re a lean team, it’s just a few of us here; it’s like, I never provided that rigorous kind of leadership, or… I mean, I would call it just constant feedback or babysitting kind of thing. If you’re trying to do a coordinated effort where people are working together on a project, you definitely need some significant infrastructure for management. Unless you’re assuming that everyone is very evolved and completely aligned, and completely collaborative, which is kind of not yet. I mentioned that collaborative literacy I think is very much undeveloped in today’s society; so people don’t know how to work together. There’s a real issue there.
[01:12:01.28] Yeah. The interesting thing, too - while the communities are separate, so in your case it’s real-world, face to face… You get different problems when you are face to face… Whereas when you’re digital communities, you’re on your own island, so to speak. You don’t have to see each other face to face. You can, I suppose, commit to continuing to argue on the internet, which people do, but you do have the luxury of being able to walk away and have that separation… Whereas when you’re face to face, IRL, like you are, you may not have quite that same opportunity. So you’re eating breakfast with them, and eating lunch with them, and there is no break… And then you have little, weird cues or ticks that might get you… There’s all these things that happen when you’re in a real space with people, that doesn’t happen in the digital spaces, and that can really drive you crazy, so to speak.
Yeah, absolutely. And we are setting this place up. We’re gonna basically run this as a school, or between tech school and immersion education programs, so we definitely have to figure all this out. So we’ll need a community manager, we’ll need a cook. We’ll probably have staff, like people who are taking care of the facility, building things, growing food… The best example is like a university campus, where you’ve got enough support staff that you can actually make it work.
Yeah. Do you have maybe like a town name for – I know you have a business name in this idea, but did you name your place? This is like the place you go…
What’s the Mecca name? What’s the name of the place?
Yeah, it’s called Factor-E Farm. It’s not a Factory Farm, it’s a Factor-E Farm, where E is the exponential number. It’s about transcendence.
It’s a transcendental number.
So you’ve got the Open Building Institute, you’ve got this place you’re at, you’ve got the Seed Eco-Buildings, you’ve got the Global Village Construction Set, which you’re still working on… A lot of stuff happening. What’s the next big horizon you’re facing? I know you’ve mentioned a couple of things, but what’s the next big thing that you’re doing? And maybe even an invitation to this audience we have here to build their first home, or give somehow. How do you see a lot of the listenership of this show playing a role?
Yeah. Well, you might it’s the next big thing, but it’s all part of the Global Village Construction Set, which the finish line is 2028, where we have essentially an appropriate technology infrastructure. But actually, bigger than that, we’re developing these machines, these artifacts, but what we’re actually doing is developing collaborative design and development protocols that can shift the economy from proprietary to collaborative. That is a much bigger question. That means your AT&T or your John Deere. You’re not doing what you’re doing with your proprietary research; you’re part of an open source effort that makes everybody better, so a more distributed world.
The next thing that we have is – if you wanna help us out, there is the big hackathon in August (the middle of August). That’s gonna be a big thing. We need a lot of CAD people, designers, graphics people, publishing people… Because we’re gonna basically write the big manual, the enterprise manual for how you build the Seed Eco-Homes. And then in September we’re gonna do an immersion, where you actually learn to build the Seed Eco-Homes if you wanna build them, or we’re doing a longer program for three months, where you’re actually getting trained on how to be an entrepreneur or builder building these houses. So there’s a lot of activity there, and it does include the tractors and the 3D printers as part of that infrastructure. So if people wanna help out, sign up online.
We have an interest form of the Seed Eco-Home; we’re gonna basically launch that as a public announcement probably by March 1st. So there’s about six months before the actual hands-on training. So that’s a big thing. Or otherwise, buy our 3D printers.
There you go.
That’s one product we offer online right now.
And you can do that at open sourceecology.org. Of course, links in the show notes. The TED talk that Marcin has given there, the open source microfactory build camp that he’s talking about later this year is there, and other things, of course… And the Product tab is there to purchase a 3D printer if you so want to; the Pro or Universal.
Marcin, thank you so much for sharing this story. It’s very interesting to sort of cross that chasm of software into hardware, and I think you’ve helped us do that very well… And I like how it challenges people to think differently about recyclables, and reuse, and a responsible future, and proprietary versus collaborative. I think this is a really interesting concept you’ve helped us introduce here today… So thank you for sharing your time and your ideas.
Thanks, Adam, and thanks, Jerod. This was great.
Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. 💚