Open Source Ecology

The Open Source Ecology Project is an ambitious attempt to create all of the tools and machines needed to build and run a small modern civilisation, and to share them freely with the world. The ultimate goal of the project is to create a 'Global Village Construction Set', made up from 50 different open source industrial machines, and capable of being used to build a small town complete with modern comforts from scratch.

The industrial machines being built by the Open Source Ecology project will have their full plans and blueprints, along with construction guides, published on the internet under GPL and creative commons (CC-BY-SA) licenses. Anybody will then be able to make these machines themselves for a fraction of the cost of their commercial counterparts. It is hoped that this will help people who would otherwise not have the finances needed for modern commercial agriculture and construction, especially in developing countries. It will also kick-start the project's broader goal of helping to “create an open source economy – an efficient economy which increases innovation by open collaboration.”

The project is based around the 'Factor E Farm' in Missouri, where the core team are building a small environmentally friendly town as an exemplar of what can be done with open source tools. Residents of Factor E Farm generate all of their own electricity using solar panels, collect rainwater, and grow all of their own food. All of this is done using open source construction and farming machines. A number of teams from across the United States and the world also contribute towards the development of the necessary open source machines. New designs and improvements to existing blueprints are sent in to the Factor E Farm by these teams of engineers, architects, farmers, students and home-based 'makers'. The best are then developed into prototypes by the team in Missouri, and then incrementally improved until they reach the final 'Product Stage'.

In addition to constructing prototypes and providing a living example of what is possible, the team at Factor E Farm also run regular workshops for interested parties to go in and learn more about the various machines and construction techniques being used. At the time of writing this article 13 of the 50 projects have reached the stage of a working prototype, and four of those have had their design finalised and have therefore been fully documented for others to copy. Twelve of these machines made up the 'Civilisation Starter Kit' which won Time magazine's 'top invention of the year' award in 2012. The Open Source Ecology project also won Make Magazine's 'Green project Contest' in 2011, and has successfully raised funds through the Kickstarter website and through a grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation.

50 Machines to Build a Civilization


Actually its 49 machines and one building, as the architectural plans and construction techniques for building a small house using the open source machines created at Factor E Farm is included as one of the 50 projects. Here is the full list:

  1. Microhouse: The aim of this project is to create a modular house design which can be built from scratch using, as far as possible, raw natural resources rather than purchased materials. Some 'advanced materials' such as steel are being used in the current design, but the bulk of the structure is built using compressed earth blocks and wood. The Microhouse uses a modular design, so that it can be easily extended with additions such as a built-in greenhouse or multiple stories. There is a strong focus on the use of sustainable materials and also on rapid construction times – with a single structure including foundation taking only a single day for the team to complete. Although the first Microhouse has already been built, this is very much still a work in progress. OSE is currently exploring the possibility of incorporating designs from another open source construction project – WikiHouse – into its design for the Microhouse.
  2. Compressed Earth Block Press: The CEB Press, also known affectionately as 'Liberator', is used to create construction blocks, for use in buildings, from one of the most commonly available materials in the world – soil. It is currently operational and producing 10 blocks per minute, and the team is now working on finalizing the documentation to ensure that the construction of a CEB Press can be replicated by anybody who wants to. The machine is built using a CNC Torch Table – one of the other documented projects – and all of the parts needed to make one can be cut in around an hour.
  3. Tractor: With a modular latching mechanism for attaching different tools, the tractor can be used for both agricultural and construction purposes. It is four wheel drive and uses hydraulic power for its arms. At the heart of the tractor project is the Lifetrac platform, which is designed with maximum flexibility so that it can be used with various different engines and can provide a base to convert the vehicle into a truck, bulldozer, or anything else which is required. One of the remaining goals for the tractor project is to allow for the use of biomass fuels (which can be produced on-site) for power.
  4. CNC Torch / Router Table: This is one of the workhorses of the project, and is used in the construction of many of the other machines. The current prototype uses an acetylene torch and an open source controller.
  5. IronWorker: Although the OSE project seeks to use readily available and easily accessible natural resources as much possible, metal is sometimes needed – particularly in the construction of other machines. This is usually in the form of steel tubing. The IronWorker machine is designed to cut, bend, and drill holes in metallic materials.
  6. Power Cube: The Power Cube is a multi-purpose hydraulic power unit, currently comprised of an internal combustion engine coupled with a hydraulic pump. It is used as part of the tractor, amongst other things.
  7. Rototiller and Soil Pulveriser: Built on top of the modular tractor design, this is a vital tool for both agricultural work and landscaping.
  8. Trencher: Another attachment to the modular tractor system, this machine does exactly what the name implies – it cuts trenches. Used for laying pipes and cables, digging drainage and irrigation channels, and so on.
  9. Universal Rotor: This flexible little machine can be used as a stand-alone unit or attached to the tractor, and forms the basis for a wide variety of machines which require torque, from a cement mixer to a sawmill.
  10. Backhoe: A hydraulic excavation attachment for the tractor.
  11. Microtractor: A small machine for use in harvesting and threshing.
  12. 3D Printer: One of the most versatile tools, to be used for literally 'printing out' small and medium sized three dimensional objects.
  13. 3D Scanner: Used to generate a digital copy of a physical object, which can then be fed back into a 3D printer to literally 'photocopy' a 3 dimensional object. The scanner can also be used in conjunction with the CNC multimachine.
  14. Sawmill: A twin blade sawmill system used for cutting lumber to specific dimensions in one pass.
  15. Laser Cutter: Used for precision cutting of metal, wood or plastic.
  16. CNC Circuit Mill: Used for manufacturing electronic circuit boards by cutting material out from copper coated boards.
  17. Cement Mixer: for mixing cement, of course.
  18. Heat Exchanger: This is a multi-purpose device for transferring heat from one medium to another, such as taking the heat from a fire to generate steam from water for a steam engine or generator.
  19. Linear Solar Concentrator: A simple system of mirrors for concentrating the sun's energy onto a specific target, for solar generation or heating.
  20. CNC Precision Multimachine: Capable of milling, lathing, sawing, drilling and grinding.
  21. Hay Cutter: For both cutting and baling hay.
  22. Well-drilling rig: For the construction of deep water wells.
  23. Bulldozer: Heavy duty, high traction, earth moving machine; built on top of the same base as the regular tractor.
  24. Open Source Truck: Also built on the 'Lifetrac' base, this open bed truck is used for a wide range of transportation purposes.
  25. Microcombine: A small harvester and thresher.
  26. Modern Steam Engine: Intended to provide a method of increasing the use of biomass materials for power.
  27. Open source Automobile: Several tentative initial designs for an open source car have been put forward.
  28. Industrial Robot: A robotic arm for use in dangerous industrial applications, such as welding.
  29. Pelletzer: Compresses shredded pieces of biomass into 'flowable' pellets.
  30. Gasifier Burner: An efficient burner which operates by gasifying materials prior to combustion.
  31. Baler: A baling machine.
  32. Welder: Used to create strong permanent bonds by melting and fusing metallic components.
  33. Bioplastic Extruder: For fabricating large sheets of plastic for use in applications such as greenhouse glazing.
  34. Hydraulic Motor: A flexible multi-purpose hydraulic power motor.
  35. Universal Power Supply: A combination power supply box that can be used to supply off-grid power to other machines.
  36. Wind Turbine: A 50kW wind power generator.
  37. Aluminium Extractor: This machine is capable of producing aluminium from clay, by dissolving the raw material and then electrolyzing the solution.
  38. Chipper: Used for reducing materials (especially wood) to small chips.
  39. Electric Motor and Generator: For use in a wide range of electric propulsion and power generation applications.
  40. Hay Rake: A tractor attachment for raking hay and other light crops prior to baling.
  41. Induction Furnace: An electrical furnace for energy-efficient and precision controlled melting of metals.
  42. Metal Rolling Machine: For shaping metal into various forms.
  43. Nickel-Iron Batteries: Reliable long-life batteries.
  44. Plasma Cutter: For cutting materials using a plasma torch.
  45. Press Forge: For shaping metallic materials using high pressure
  46. Rod and Wire Mill: For shaping metal into shafts, thin bars, and wires.
  47. Spader: Used for preparing soil for planting without the high levels of soil disruption caused by the rototiller.
  48. Universal Seeder: When pulled by a tractor this machine can plant the seeds of any crop at the desired spacing level.
  49. Dairy Milker: For milking livestock.
  50. Bakery Oven: A large oven for baking bread and other consumer food items.

How You Can Help

Full information about how you can get involved in supporting and helping the OSE project can be found on the official website. Here is an overview of the various ways that you can offer your support:

Becoming an OSE Developer

There are several different ways that you can get involved in the development of the open source tools needed to complete the Global Village Construction Set.

Students and designers can take part in the regular 'design sprints' organized by OSE. These are collaborative design sessions within a Google Hangout group. The design requirements and collaboration rules for each session are defined in advance, and each session generally lasts for a couple of hours.

Students can also apply for internships or spring break volunteering opportunities at Factor E Farm.

Requests for Proposal: Open source developers can browse through a range of RFPs and submit a work offer to take on one of the current development priorities listed by OSE.

Skilled open source hardware developers can join the team at Factor E Farm for a three month residency program.

Becoming an OSE Organizer

The Open Source Ecology project is looking for dedicated volunteers to help organize local chapters, arrange university lectures, and to assist in the organization of a wide range of community outreach projects such as design challenges, social enterprise challenges, and team development projects.

Becoming an OSE Supporter

You can also help this amazing project to succeed by offering your financial support. You can make donations via Paypal or Bitcoin from the website (unfortunately not Devcoin – consider contacting the team to suggest a Devcoin donation option!) or by bank wire, cheque, or postal order.

If you are able to make a regular donation of $10 per month then you can join the 'True Fan' program. True fans get invites to exclusive Google hangouts to ask questions and discuss the project, are offered free entrance to prototyping days in Missouri, and can get a 25% discount on the cost of any of the regular 3 day workshops held at Factor E Farm.

Photos from Factor E Farm




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