Manufacturing

.  manufacturing
Image from Bernd Helfert

In the 105th century AT, manufacturing using ordinary matter depends heavily on assembler technology. This includes the actions of machines of various sizes, from the nanoscale devices of nanotech, biotech or syntech through mobile types of microbot or synsect all the way up to macrobots of multi-ton size, together with the fixed structures like vats and feed lines of every size from nanoscale to megascale that support their work.

No matter how complex the details and no matter what the scale, the principle of assembler-based manufacturing is very simple: information (templates) and raw materials are fed to the assembly area, and semiautonomous bots ranging from in size from nanobots to megastructures use the instructions in the template to create the desired product. Such facilities are called autofabs or nanofabs, and they produce the vast majority of manufactured goods in the civilized galaxy. This is not to say that other technologies, ranging from modosophont level primtech handicrafts or middletech production lines to transapient-level metric engineering are not also in use, but the small-scale domestic autofab with a user-friendly interface is common to almost every home unit in the civilized galaxy, and its larger industrial-scale cousin is one of the supporting pillars of civilized societies everywhere. There are some variants and specialized versions of these units of course, but they follow the same fundamental principles. Most notable of these are bio-vats and vattices containing large quantities or organobiota among which swim microbio and mesobio assemblers.

All that is required for an autofab to work are the nanites and other bots themselves and their operating software, some raw materials, a power supply, and the template. This template of the item to be fabricated typically relies on elaborate library functions to reduce redundancy and file size. Autofab designs and programming have been standard for millennia, and energy and materials are typically abundant, but good templates and supporting libraries are always in demand. Production and publication of templates has been a major primary industry for over eight thousand years.

Power Generation and Distribution

For large scale applications anywhere near a star, power is typically beamed from the inner parts of a system, where energy is most abundant, to the middle and outer reaches, where matter is more abundant. Common practice is that once received at a central station this power is redistributed locally via superconducting materials. Smaller scale applications may require only local power supplies: solar, fusion, or (on some planetary surfaces) water or wind power or the local equivalent. Power may also be generated locally through a variety of methods in the outer system, especially by those who prize local independence, but for the most part the large stellar output need only be captured and redirected.

Nanofacturing Sites

Nanofacturing is speediest and easiest when the available materials are highly concentrated, and is easiest of all if the material feedstocks are in the form of fluids. Solid materials need to be disassembled before manufacturing can take place, a process that requires energy and is subject to surface area constraints. If a wide range of nanofactured products are required, the variety of elements found on a planetary or lunar body is also a bonus, since single asteroids or comets tend to have a fairly restricted range of elements (according to whether they are primarily nickel-iron, silicate, carbonaceous, or icy). Even elements found in naturally low local abundance can be concentrated if a large volume of material (especially hydrosphere or atmosphere) is available to nanotech sorting and concentrating machinery. If an atmosphere is present, the presence of the reactive gases found on life bearing worlds (oxygen for instance) is a detriment, as it may interfere with nano. A protected area, either a metre or more below the surface of a solid object or within the cloak of an atmosphere or hydrosphere, is also desirable, as nanites are least vulnerable to damage and mutation where their exposure to cosmic rays and the solar wind is lowest. Other things being equal, a vacuum is often useful for the operations themselves. This tends to favour sites that are not in an atmosphere, since creating the appropriate environment is easier, though on balance the ready availability of fluid materials can be more important. Ambient temperature is also a factor; most nano is non-functional at temperatures high above 500 Celsius and is very slow below the -200 Celsius mark, although within these broad constraints nanoassemblers can be created to work according to the temperatures available. In the case of extreme cold, of course, materials can be warmed, whereas cooling is usually a much more difficult proposition. Nano also needs an energy source, but relatively speaking energy is the least important factor, since it can be generated locally or (if the site is not in an atmosphere) beamed from the inner parts of the system.

The result of these constraints is that the most productive manufacturing operations take place on a planet or moon (or a large artificial body such as a Banks orbital) that has a thick hydrosphere and/or atmosphere at chemical equilibrium, usually one which is near its star but does not have an overwhelming greenhouse effect. Next in economy and productivity is a planet, moon or large asteroid with a solid surface of ice or rock, regardless of location (given that power can be beamed from insystem), or a life-bearing world with an atmosphere that contains reactive gases. Scattered resources, such as planetary rings, typical elements of asteroid belts, and oort clouds (more or less in that order) are more expensive to develop, since in these cases only so much material can be processed before a move to the next chunk of rock and ice. The slowest and most expensive manufacturing operations are those that take place in extremely diffuse media, such as a nebula.

A final factor is the cost of moving the nanofactured materials to where they will be used. Whenever possible, of course, nanofacturing takes place somewhere with reasonable access to populations. The key factor in this case is the energy cost for transportation, not distance. Boosting nanofactured objects up out of a gravity well is only economical for small, light, relatively valuable items, or when the basic materials simply are not available elsewhere. This is why nanofacturing more often takes place further out in a system, since it is easier to beam power to an outer system site than to boost finished products to a higher orbit around a star. It is also why nanofacturing on most planetary surfaces is not particularly useful other than to those who live on that particular planet. Even if a beanstalk is available, there are still prohibitive energy costs for exports. If it were not for this, and for environmental considerations, the best site of all for nanofacturing would be beside the ocean on a world with an atmosphere and liquid water.

Materials

Nanotech can make a huge range of materials, but it is cheapest for materials containing elements with the highest cosmic abundance. Water, ammonia, and methane, either as liquids or as ices and clathrates, would be the most economical, but they are not particularly useful as final products to most terragen clades since they are not stable at the temperatures that the terragens typically find comfortable. The Muuh have a relative advantage in this case. For instance, they have some extremely advanced technologies that use the various phases of water ice.

At temperatures friendly to Terragens, various organic materials are very useful. Nothing equals the range of compounds one can make with carbon, and hydrogen is by far the most abundant element. Basic hydrocarbon polymers remain cheap and versatile, and the Age of Plastics has not ended. In addition, a whole range of more complex organics like cellulose, lignin, chitin, shell, bone, and protein are extraordinarily cheap and versatile. Since the advent of working dry or bio nanotech, the Age of Wood has returned in a more sophisticated form. Wood-like substances are extremely common, not only because their practical and aesthetic appeal based on their sophisticated microstructure but also because the elements from which they are constructed are so abundant.

Pure carbon is the backbone of the nanofacturing business, given the cosmic abundance of carbon itself and the strength of the carbon-carbon bond. The various kinds of diamondoids and fullerenes are pervasive. They were among the first products of nanofacture, and remain the single most common category of material produced to this very day.

Oxygen is even more common than carbon, and although not a construction material itself it may be used in combination with elements such as silicon, calcium, and aluminum, to produce carbonates, silicates or aluminosilicates (rock) as well as various ceramics. Silicon carbide, silicon nitride, aluminium oxide, and other covalently bonded, hard substances are used in much the same way as diamondoid, though since they may use less common elements or have more complicated chemical formulae they are more difficult and expensive to create. The most common of these is aluminium silicate, in the form of corundumoids (often called sapphiroids). Nickel and iron are quite abundant in the cosmos, and see a good deal of use, especially in applications that require the set of properties unique to metals. Chromium, manganese, titanium and cobalt are also used in their metallic forms or as alloys with other metals, since they are relatively common. Copper and lead, humanity's ancient standbys, are joined by other elements such as zirconium and cerium which are cosmically abundant but tend to be found dispersed among other elements rather than in concentrated form. Yet more specialized applications use the so-called "rare earths", which are actually more abundant than such elements as gold or silver but were little used on Old Earth because they are dispersed rather than concentrated by typical geological processes. Nanotechnology's ability to sort atoms has overcome this limitation, and these metals have come to the fore.

Some of the least common elements are created, rather than sifted from the pool of available materials. Nucleosynthesis, usually in deep well industrial zones (DWIZs), can produce heavier elements. The trade-off in point in cost at which it becomes cheaper to manufacture the element than to nanosift for it is at about the cosmic abundance of gold or tungsten, though of course this varies according to the metallicity of the local system.

Complexity

Other things being equal, highly complex shapes are much more expensive to manufacture than simple shapes. A simple block of diamondoid is much cheaper than a rod-logic diamondoid computer of the same mass, and a simple crystal of diamond is less complicated than something like jadeite. Likewise, imparting a complex form, such as that of a vehicle, or a foam-like or wood-like microstructure to a nanofactured object is quite expensive since it requires complex emergent effects in the nanite swarm. Most expensive of all are smart materials, ranging from those with shape memory or responsiveness to environmental conditions to those that actually have some limited processing ability and can change shape, colour, texture, or other properties according to commands or to pre-set programs.

Industrial, Neighbourhood, and Home Manufactures

Vat-based nanofacturing using a "feed" of materials in a controlled environment is the cheapest and most versatile form of nanofacturing. Such vats are either served by feed lines, which provide elements either as pure or as simple compounds or (more rarely) have stockpiles of the necessary material. Nanites are introduced into this controlled environment, and then build an item to order. Such vats range from the gigantic constructs used to create ships, habitats, or parts for megascale engineering, to the neighbourhood or community vat used for vehicles, and other items which are large or complex, to home nanofac units which produce the smallest and least complicated kinds of items. A neighbourhood nanofac vat, which serves as a combination "store" and "factory", is a feature of many societies. Feed lines for nanofacs are one of the features of modern urban life. The balance of these industrial, community, and home nanofacs varies considerably according to clade and culture. Orangutan provolves like Clade Mawas, for instance, usually prefer extensive home nanofacture capability, despite the relative inefficiency of this arrangement, since they tend to avoid unnecessary social interactions. Human nearbaselines, on the other hand, may prefer to "go out" for larger items not only because the range and power of a community nanofac is greater but also because it is an opportunity to visit, gossip, and see and be seen. Some polities prefer to restrict access to the larger, wider ranging and more powerful nanofac facilities in any case, either from a desire for control on the part of rulers or from a more practical impulse to prevent malicious or careless usage. In most polities the range of items that can be produced by a legal nanofac is keyed to personal identities, to prevent access to dangerous designs by children or unstable individuals. Most home or community nanofacs also have some safety features of this sort even if the polity is quite liberal.

Alternatives to the Autofab

Sporetech technology is more complex than vat and feed methods. Although it is more robust than autofacture, sporetech is generally less flexible in that any one device produces just one product or a narrow range of products, as opposed to autofabs which can be programmed to create extremely large ranges of products. This is because of the limited database contained in most spores. Spores are distributed in large numbers but only contain small amounts of reserve materials, so only a few spores successfully start replicating if and when they find a suitable location.

Seedtech resembles sporetech in many respects, but the seed contains a larger database, inbuilt feedstock reserves and a wider range of replicator devices. A large seed is effectively a compact autofab with a small store of feedstock, and is less reliant on finding perfect conditions for replication.

 
Articles
  • Assembler  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev after Richard Baker and David Dye (Ad Astra).
    Any molecular machine that can be programmed to build virtually any molecular structure or device from simpler chemical building blocks. Also called a drexler.
  • Asteroid Mining, Belt Mining  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev, additional comments by Steve Bowers
    The process of extracting useful minerals and other substances from asteroids.
  • Autofab  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev; modified and expanded by Stephen Inniss
    Also known as a fab, nanofab, autofac, nanoforge, or nanofac. A nanotech fabrication unit for creating finished products from raw materials. This type of device is ubiquitous in the Terragen Sphere.
  • Autofac - Text by Stephen Inniss
    An alternative term for an autofab.
  • Bacterics  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Use of bacteria in biotech - e.g. as simple biobots, as bionano processing nodes, and more.
  • Bioforge  - Text by Todd Drashner
    A biological factory or manufacturing device capable of creating a wide range of biotech products.
  • Bionano, Bionanotechnology  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Any molecular nanotechnology based on such biomolecules, genetically modified micro-organism or other biotech.
  • Boser - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    A matter laser. The stimulated emission of BEC results in bosons marching in coherent phase. Bosers have many uses in energy storage and release and in weapons systems.
  • Chemical Engineering - Text by M. Alan Kazlev, based on the original by Robert J. Hall
    The macro-, micro-, meso- or nano-scale chemical conversion of raw materials into such end products as bioplastoids, synthetic petroleum products, dumb (macroscale) detergents, plastics, natural and synthetic fuels, pharmaceuticals, fullerenes, hardcopy paper, and industrial chemicals. While most products can be easily synthesized with any household nanofab, chemical engineering is still important in the mass-production of large quantities of material in large chemical plants.
  • Chemical Plant  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Complex for the industrial output of chemical elements.
  • Chemosynthesis - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Primary production of organic matter using various substances and chemical reactions instead of light as an energy source; a common phenomenon throughout the galaxy, but rare in terragen ecologies.
  • Deep Well Industrial Zone  - Text by Todd Drashner
    Heavy duty industrial and manufacturing zones, most often found in the Inner Sphere and most heavily developed areas of the Middle Regions.
  • Fab - Text by Stephen Inniss
    Alternative term for an autofab.
  • Forge Integrated Technology (FIT)  - Text by Todd Drashner
    Systems that incorporate one or more nanoforges into their structure for the purpose of producing new or replacement components as circumstances may require.
  • Genius Locus (House Fab)  - Text by Steve Bowers
    The efficient matter compilers that are provided to homes and institutions in many Negentropic human utopian worlds.
  • Goo  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    General term for nanomachines or bionano swarms, especially dangerous replicators. Types include Grey Goo (mindless replicators converting matter into more goo), Red Goo (weapon or malicious goo), Khaki Goo (military goo), Golden Goo (dangerous accidental goo), Green Goo(out of control bionano) and Ultraviolet Goo (ai-equipped goo). The most common defence is Blue Goo (immune nanodevices).
  • Goo, Golden - Text by M. Alan Kazlev, from Anders Sandberg's Transhumanist Terminology
    A type of goo disaster, the strange name comes from an early Information Age hypothetical scenario. The idea was to use nanomachines to filter gold from seawater. If this process got out of control the result would be piles of golden goo (the " Wizard's Apprentice Problem"). This scenario demonstrated the need of keeping populations of self-replicating machines under control; it is much more common than grey goo, but also more manageable. Also Carbon Goo, Aluminium Goo, etc.
  • Idiot Locus - Text by John B
    Also known as IL or 'ill'. A term often used by Negentropic clade members to differentiate their (superior, in their eyes) matter compiler system known as Genius Loci versus other clades. Usage - "I can't get the G. L. to 'fact me that shivverskate. You gotta tell me where that ill is, zar!!!"
  • Mattercache  - Text by Todd Drashner
    The stores of feedstock matter maintained on a ship or habitat for use as building material, whether for standard operations or emergency repairs.
  • Mining  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev, modified from the original write-up by Robert J. Hall
    The extraction of mineral resources from an asteroid, planetoid, moon, planet or other object in space.
  • Municipal Feedstock Utilities  - Text by Michael Boncher
    The combination of storage and transportations systems that bring elementary materials to public, personal, and industrial nanofacs.
  • Nanite  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev; amended by Stephen Inniss and Ryan B
    Generic term for a molecular or nanoscale device, whether bionano or hylonano; a cluster of reactive nanoparticles.
  • Nanobot  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev; amended by Stephen Inniss and Ryan B
    A hylotech, biotech or syntech bot that uses nanoscale mechanisms and manipulates objects on the nanoscale. By convention nanobots are less than one micrometre in size; larger bots enabled by nanotech are referred to as mesobots, cytobots, or microbots, or if they are still larger then they may be called as mitebots, synsects, or simply bots.
  • Nanofab - Text by Stephen Inniss
    An alternative name for an autofab.
  • Nanofab/Nanofac Models  - Text by Thorbjørn Steen
    Typical modern nanofabs/nanofacs.
  • Nanofac - Text by Stephen Inniss
    An alternative name for an autofab.
  • Nanofacture - Text by Geoff Dale in Anders Sandberg's Transhuman Terminology
    The fabrication of goods, especially but not necessarily macroscale items, using nanotechnology. Fabrication may occur on a large industrial scale, or from a small personal autofab unit.
  • Nanoforge - Text by Stephen Inniss
    An alternative name for an autofab.
  • Nanoseed - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Nanotech "seed", a self-contained and sealed capsule containing assemblers and replicators either pre-programmed with templates or instructed from an external source. The seed is "planted" on a substrate, and activated with energy or a nutrient spray. It then grows into the desired product, using locally acquired resources and ambient energy (e.g. sunlight) or in the case of some large nanoseeds, a small amat battery.
  • Pigment Technology  - Text by John Edds
    Passive, (often solid-state) colorants used in everything from the shells of marine creatures to the hulls of spacecraft
  • Santa Clause (Santa Claus) Machine   - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    A robust matter compiler employing nano-, meso- micro- and macrotech. Placed on a planetary surface it can build anything out of available material
  • Seedtech  - Text by Stephen Inniss, Steve Bowers and M. Alan Kazlev
    Large, self-replicating sporetech units
  • Torus - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    A doughnut-shaped surface; a wheel-like configuration that is a popular design of small orbitals and space stations that wish to maintain a non-microgravity environment. The torus spins slowly on its axis, generating gravity centrifugally.
  • Universal Constructor - Text by Anders Sandberg in his Transhuman Terminology
    A (hypothetical) machine (such as an ideal nanofab) capable of constructing anything that can be constructed. The physical analog of a universal computer.
  • Vat-Tech  - Text by Stephen Inniss
    Information Age technology for creating useful materials from cell cultures.
  • Vegetable Patch - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Slang term for the biofacturing dyson trees and megacomplexes orbiting the superjovian Little Darwin, in the Zoeific Biopolity.
  • Warchive  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev and Anders Sandberg
    Nanotech weapons archive/assembler.
  • Wer-water  - Text by Todd Drashner
    Colloquial term (originally a brand name) for a class of programmable drinks
  • Wizard's Apprentice Problem - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Failing to give a program or nanotech device a correct stopping condition.
 
Related Topics
 
Development Notes
Text by Stephen Inniss
some material by M. Alan Kazlev
Initially published on 25 July 2005.