Open Source Ecology's "Build Yourself"

Tristan sez, "At Open Source Ecology, we're making all the industrial machines you need to create a fully autonomous community, and sharing our designs online for free. We've just made a 3 minute film about our work and with your help it could win the Focus Forward film competition. This would earn us up to 100K to help us continue developing and spreading new machines. We hope you enjoy and vote for our film!" [Video Link]


    1. That’s a good question, but I would say that “it depends on what you’re manufacturing”.  More specifically, it matters on the cost of manufacturing.  Open Source is great for distributing intellectual property and more importantly the pooled incremental improvements to that intellectual property.  This is great for things like software where the bottleneck has always been the talent to come up with the intellectual property but actual production costs are minute: just the costs of copying data.

      These guys are doing the first part great: distributing the intellectual property and sharing the incremental improvements.  However, the actual costs of production are huge: time and effort and materials to actually assemble the machinery.  Here, mass production on an assembly line will run circles around them.  Mass production is much more efficient at actually building physical things (where the cost of manufacturing is tied up in time and material) vs. just designing/writing things like software or stories or digital items. 

      The trick is that mass production only pays off in a competitive economy, where prices set demand, demand sets production, and production drives profits.  Even if these guys were to all get together and have one of them build 20 tractors, another build 20 brick makers, etc., the coordination between them would suck out any efficiency gained form “mass” producing 20 instead of 1.

      Don’t get me wrong– I love the concept– but it only works where materials/time/production costs don’t matter.  I think it would be cool to preload the content on the laptops they hand out in Africa.

      1. Well, but this is just the beginning. Eventually, machines will be completely 3D printed, and even later, assembled by nanotech. At this point mass production no longer has any real advantage.

    2. Actually, I think that it’s a false question; there’s nothing wrong with, or inherently inefficient about the market. The problem is intellectual property, which is imposed by government force and is not a natural property of the market. Without it, everyone would end up sharing and copying each other’s designs in most cases. The inefficiency comes from hiding innovations and duplicating work, which wouldn’t happen without IP.

  1. Dave, the higher efficiency of mass production for the 20 tractors you mention does not necessarily hold true. We have examined the person-hours of our production scheme and compared it to the figures for mass production of tractors in India. Our numbers were actually lower. This is counter-intuitive and a welcome surprise to me as well. We are demonstrating that absolute efficient production on a small scale – with time and costs considered – can be a contender. Stay tuned as we show  real data on this point in the coming months.

    1. Awesome on two fronts:
      1. I look forward to seeing your data.  I love counter-intuitive economics.
      2. I <3 BoingBoing, where the actual mutants involved with a given project show up in the discussion thread.  Nice to meet you, Marcin! 

    2. Glad you’re here.  I think your project is very interesting, and I hope you succeed in your goals.  Your FAQ at suggests that you desire to evolve this system to a point where it can “produce all the things that one currently finds at a Walmart cost-effectively, quickly, on-demand from local resources.”  This brings to mind a few questions:
      1. How do you define “cost-effective”?
      2. Is the intent to develop systems that can be bootstrapped into manufacturing reasonable working facsimiles of a typical Walmart’s breadth of SKUs, or systems that can actually manufacture duplicates of those SKUs down to the same level of quality, finish, and affordances?
      3. Do you have any rough estimates on how much human effort and resources it would take a fully-developed GVCS system to manufacture the components for a reasonably functional laptop computer, starting from unextracted natural resources?

      1. I think by cost-effective they just mean that you can make a tractor at the cost of scrap metal + parts. Compared to a $100,000 pre-made tractor that’s pretty cost-effective.

  2. On the one hand, I think autonomy is a vain and expensive (in time or money) goal. If you’re really good at something, you’ll generally be better off trading on that skill and getting someone else to make that sawmill/skid loader/whatever. And ultimately autonomy in the modern world is not absolutely attainable, but is measured in degrees; I have yet to see any individual produce their own steel ball bearings, for example.
    That said, I think this project has a couple of excellent benefits:
    – There are a lot of people with technical skills that are underemployed. They can bootstrap themselves into housing or some productive enterprise using these designs.
    – Even though some of the first generation designs are clunky, the evolutionary nature of the open source process should eventually result in some much nicer machinery.

    1. The true limits to practical autonomy remain to be seen. We can probably both agree that people today have unprecedented productive potential – and this trend is only accelerating. We can also probably both agree that enterprise is becoming more sophisticated and efficient. To me, the limit of these trends is autonomy. This is a fundamental human tendency –  as in Daniel Pink’s TED Talk on the Surprising Science of Motivation.

  3. Actually this system wouldnt be that great after a major disaster / zombie apocalypse IMHO. It still needs a lot of energy and technology to get it off the ground and keep it going. I am learning to be a blacksmith and our course tutor said “All you need is some iron ore, a good fire and a big stone for an anvil and a smaller stone for a hammer and you can start your own civilization from scratch”

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