DIY industrial-scale tools: Open Source Ecology’s Global Village Construction Set
For young farmers, especially those starting up operations from scratch, the challenge of acquiring the equipment needed to do the job can be daunting. The history of farming in the U.S. is full of lessons to be learned from farmers who have taken out loans to buy equipment, then been forced to scale up to pay off the loans, then needed to take out more loans to scale up . . . Many young farmers are heeding these lessons by re-envisioning their farm plans to be more hand-scale; others are making do with very-used but often very unreliable equipment; and many are putting off farming altogether until they accrue more cash.
But there’s another approach being attempted by the hacker/engineer farmers and community builders at the Open Source Ecology project. They are asking the questions: what if we as a community took more control of the production process for medium to large scale farming equipment and tools? Just as programmer communities came together with open-source software to challenge giants like Microsoft, what if we as farmers came together to design, build and improve our own tractors, tools, and implements?
Based in Missouri, the Open Source Ecology (OSE) team is “creating tools to build replicable, open source, modern off-grid resilient communities using open source permaculture and technology .” Their current project is called the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), and the goal is to develop 40 modular machines whose plans can be accessed and built by the average layperson for a fraction of the cost of their industrially pre-fabricated equivalents. They estimate that the cost of production for these tools, including personal labor and parts (mostly standard steel and off-the-shelf motors and hydraulic components), will average 1/8 the price of commercially-produced counterparts. They also aim to provide digital fabrication files, so that folks who have access to a local business with a laser cutter (like TechShop) can complete many of the machines in mere days. Currently they have one model released and eight others prototyped.
The OSE web site offers deep levels of detail on their projects, including development histories of the individual tools, videos, parts lists, and plans to build them. Here at FarmHack we’re going to take a look at their prototypes and inventions as they come along, and then together FarmHack readers and contributors can consider how these tools might be integrated into the farming operations that we are already running or planning to run, or how we might adapt our farms to make use of these tools. A few of the projects that are on the way and that we will post about soon include the LifeTrac (a combination ag tractor / skid loader designed for multi-purpose use); the MicroTrac, a small walk-behind tractor and perhaps the most immediately useful tool to small scale, low-impact farmers; the Compressed Earth Block press (to make bricks for infrastructure such as tool sheds and barns); the Soil Pulverizer (for preparing soil for CEB construction); and the PowerCube (a modular energy source for the various GVCS components).
Aside from the dramatic cost reduction, one of the innovative components of the GVCS is its open-source platform. This means that all of the plans for the machines are available online for free, that users of the schematics are at liberty to add their own improvements, and that small businesses are able to use the plans as basis for like products, as long as they credit the source and are consistent with creative commons licensing. This is what OSE founder and TED Fellow Marcin Jakubowski calls “distributive economics,” in direct opposition to the proprietary plans of industrial manufacturers.
The actual costs of building your own equipment, in materials plus time plus effort plus learning curve, might make constructing a tractor from scratch not seem like a clear benefit when compared to buying a used ag tractor for a few thousand dollars. However, the GVCS tools are designed to use compatible and interchangeable parts– for example, the same hydraulic power unit is designed to run dozens of their tools– and to have very straightforward and low-cost maintenance and repair requirements. Want to replace the clutch on your commercial farm tractor? Get ready to spend the better part of a week completely disassembling the thing. Need transmission work done? It might cost as much as you paid for the tractor! The GVCS tools are designed so that you never have to do something like that. The OSE team states on their wiki, “we expect that the user will be able to keep the machine in working order for many decades, passing the machine down from generation to generation.”
The OSE designers also have ambitions to integrate lots of unconventional components into their tools: ranging from creating metal cutting torches that run on hydrogen instead of acetylene, since the first is an industrial product and the second can be generated on-site from water; to designing super-efficient steam engines to replace internal combustion engines powering their tools; to creating furnaces that will allow on-site production of dimensional steel from old scrap, reducing our reliance on industrial steel mills and extractive mining.
So the question for us FarmHackers is, what would we design for our farms if we had the connections to the engineering / fabrication community that we see at OSE? And how do the current models that they are pursuing mesh with our needs as a young farmer community? The beauty of open source is that we’re free to pursue those questions, offer input into the designs, and if we dedicate enough effort as a community, one day we might actually all get to see the benefits of this collaborative process rolling through our fields.
Note: The GVCS project is currently being restructured to allow for the rapid parallel development of the remaining 40 machines. In addition, new comprehensive publishing standards will soon take effect that will make the instructional material widely accessible and understandable. If you have technical expertise and are interested in becoming part of the development team, please send a resumé and cover letter to: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are interested in any of OSE’s products and projects, make sure to visit their wiki.
To stay up-to-date with announcements, bookmark their blog.
To help bring all of these tools into full product release so that everyone can benefit, you can support the project financially.
For further reading, check out Grist.
Post written by Anya Kamenskaya and Ben Shute