Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Digital-Material Convergence #3

In parts 1 and 2, I have talked mainly about using fab labs to create relatively small devices, such as beams, pipes, small solar panels, space ship parts, etc. But how about gigantic structures, such as Space/Lunar Solar Power srrays, or O'Neill settlements? Our fabber seems several orders of magnitude too small for such tasks. This problem is being tackled at this moment.

As it turns out, we can use fab labs to create a manufacturing base that is far beyond anything that exists on Earth today. Enter The RepRap Project. The aim of the project is to create a fab lab that can self-replicate. The simple act of self-replication can make one simple fab lab the size of the family television into the most powerful manufacturing device ever conceived.

How powerful? Let's suppose that the immediately available materials for fabbing are infinite. Let's make another assumption that it takes a week for a fab lab the size of the family television to replicate itself. The week it takes to fabricate the object is a very, very conservative estimate by the way. After 1 week, there would be 2 fab labs. After 2 weeks, there will be a total of 4, and after 3 weeks, a total of 8. Anyone who is familiar with exponential growth knows where this is headed. What about after 2 months (8 weeks)? After 2 months, 256 machines will exist. After 24 weeks, there would be a total of 224, or 16,777,216 machines!! Did this convince to you the power of self-replicating fab labs? I don't think so. How about a year? After 52 weeks, we would have a total of 4,503,599,627,370,496 machines. Clearly, this presents the opportunity to have a manufacturing capacity far beyond what most people could dream.

Of course, the above is a very simplified way of explaining the power of self-replication. There needs to be the raw materials to make this available. The machines will need to be constructed somehow. Because of these constraints, the manufacturing power of these machines will not be subject to a strict square power law.

If you were to build a Lunar base, you might want to send a self-replicating fabber (referred to hereafter as simply "replicator"), a construction machine, a mining machine, a "matter separator", and perhaps a machine that does chemical reactions on the mined material. At first, the main task will be replication. The replicators will mostly replicate themselves, but will also create more construction, mining, and chemical machines. The constructors will put together the parts to build new machines. The mining machines will dig in the regolith and transfer to the chemical machines. The chemical machines will separate the materials in the regolith and will also use chemical reactions to produce new stock material for the replicator. After that, then you can build your base with these machines.

A great resource to check out is Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines. It is an online book, with many studies and papers of replicators. With this sort of technology, it may be possible that a replicator will become the most powerful tool for the settlement of the oceans and of space. With exponential fabbing and replication, the tools of production will become mere appendages of information production. With this, information age fabbing will be much more powerful than industrial age manufacturing. We will be able to embark on construction projects far vaster than anything accomplished or attempted in history to this point. Want to build a shield to block sunlight from reaching Venus in an attempt to terraform it? Replicators will make this possible, and perhaps even rather easy.

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