Open Source Hardware: A Design For Life, 27/10/2011

On a farm in deepest rural Missouri, the heartland of the American midwest, a village is emerging from the soil. It’s the base camp for the Open Source Ecology (OSE) movement, founded in 2007 to search for innovative answers to the world’s mounting sustainability problems. Here a Princeton educated Polish physicist and a growing band of DIY devotees have embarked on an ambitious project – to redesign the basic elements of civilization, making them cheaper, greener and smarter.

Marcin Jubowski believes he has identified the 50 machines necessary to create a sustainable village – “a civilization starter kit”. He calls it the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), and it’s new technology, the Internet and the power of crowdsourcing that’s making this ambitious project possible.

The machines include a tractor, a press that turns soil into bricks for building and a hydraulic power unit. Marcin’s initial designs were often based on existing machines; the GVCS steam engine for example is just that, a steam engine, with simplified modern design. These initial plans and instructional videos were shared on the group’s online wiki. Gradually others have weighed in, online and in person, with improvements and suggestions. As word of the project spreads, the influence of collective knowledge grows and prototypes begin to take shape.

So far four of the machines – the tractor, the brick press, the hydraulic power cube and the soil pulverizer – have undergone the full production process: three stages of prototypes, road-testing and complete documentation. Five more are in the initial prototyping phase.

OSE claim that their completed machines are five to ten times cheaper to manufacture than current industry equivalents. A brand new tractor would cost about $120,000 in the US, or around $25,000 second hand. Their open source tractor costs just $12,000.

The machines’ modular design means they can be disassembled into their component parts and those parts reassembled into different machines, like a real life Lego set. The easy disassembly also makes repair simple and inexpensive.

The modular power cube is a particularly clever piece of open source sorcery. Consisting of an engine hooked up to a hydraulic pump, it produces power by pumping hydraulic fluid at high pressure through connecting hoses. It can be easily removed and attached to almost any machine, and a series of power cubes can be attached to each other to generate greater power.

Nikolay Georgiev is a 27 year old Bulgarian computer science major who discovered the GVCS project online. “I was searching for what projects I wanted to do. OSE seemed to combine a whole lot of good things.” Nikolay now helps out updating the group’s wiki, fundraising and coordinating European interest in the project.

The 50 machines were decided upon according to a strict set of principles. “Marcin started the project with some specific questions: whether you’re using local resources, questions about the economic model, about the ecology, development process, simplicity of design and so on. This is how they were defined, by answering all these questions,” he explains.

While ecovillage projects like this have been attempted many times before, as far back as Gandhi and beyond, it’s the embracing of the Internet and open sourcing that sets GVCS apart. While the concept of open source has until now centred on software, the focus of GVCS is open source hardware. They reap the benefits of crowdsourced knowledge, while using the Internet to share their results.

“The project is happening now because it’s possible now,” Nikolay explains. “We’re connecting globally with people from different continents, communicating and sharing information. It’s an iterative process.”

The group want their machines to be as or more efficient than private industry equivalents. The goal is to construct a practical, modern living environment, but one that does away with the waste and excess synonymous with industrialised living. “Here you’ve got more or less a small industry,” Nikolay continues. “You’re building machines. It’s like what Marcin says – civilization on a smaller scale. It’s not intended only for villages, you could build these machines and use them in cities and other places.”

Eventually the project hopes to be entirely off-grid. “We won’t be dependent on companies for electricity,” says Nikolay. “We can use the biomass converter, we’ve got wind turbines and solar concentrators.”

Funding for GVCS comes from a combination of non-profit sector donations, grants, a Kickstarter campaign, individual donations via their wiki page (from so-called “True Fans”) and sales. From May to August this year they raised $25,000 from a production run of the machines. “We sold four life trucks, four CEB (compressed earth brick) presses and eight power cubes,” says Nikolay.

Having started with a monthly budget of $1,500, they’re now working off $10,000 a month. They hope to have raised $5 million by the end of 2012.

Next year they also plan to open the world’s first open source microfactory at the site in Missouri. “There we’ll be building all, or almost all, of the industry sector machines,” Nikolay explains. “It’ll include an induction furnace for melting metal, a machine for making sheet metal, and all the machines for forming the metal into other parts – cutting, drilling and so on. Then you have production power. You can produce the prototypes much faster,” he adds.

And interest in the project is growing in Europe. “We will see something from Europe too, next year or the year after,” Nikolay believes. Similar projects have begun popping up in the US, using the GVCS wiki as their guide.

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