Initial Steps to the Open Source Multimachine

You may have read the proposition of turning the LifeTrac tractor auger to a lathe in this post. Here are the initial results of putting together an open source lathe, plus drill and mill combination.

The bill of materials is:

Total – $800 for lathe, mill, and drill function – for 20 horsepower, and 5000 inch-pounds of torque, driven by Power Cube. See lathe build for other details. The total weight of the assembly is about 600 lb.

We start with a 5000 inch-pound hydraulic motor from the LifeTrac infrastructure, and connect it to a 12 inch chuck. We then add an xy table and a toolpost, and that constitutes a lathe. The entire assembly is mounted on our new 1/2″ thick steel welding table, supported by compressed earth blocks (CEBs). This is what you get:

Add another xy table on top of the first one, and you have x, y, and z motion. This suffices to turn the lathe into a milling machine.

If you use a milling-drilling vise, you can drill holes. If you use the lathe with a drill bit, to function as a heavy duty drill press.

Indeed, we are able to drill 1″ holes, without any predrilling! That’s encouraging. This is done by moving the workpiece into the drill bit. Here are the cuttings from 1/2″ and 1″ holes.

Here is a video of the drilling and lathing. We’re drilling 1″ plate with a 1″ drill bit. In the lathe test, you can hear what chatter sounds like at the end of the video, as the welding table starts to vibrate.

Overall, we have major success on the drilling function. Plus, we have major success in achieving uncontrollable chatter in the lathe function.

We have not done any milling yet for lack of mill bits and bit holders.

It turns out that the 1/2 inch welding table – the base for attaching the setup with 1″ bolts – starts to vibrate readily under lathing operations. This is absolutely insufficient for any kind of performance outside of drilling operations. This can be addressed readily by using the Multimachine strategy. Therefore, the next step is using gutted engine blocks for mass and accuracy. Welcome back to the Multimachine. I called up an engine shop, and they sell scrap engine blocks for $30 – so this is considerably cheaper than any other option of adding stiffness to our machine.

There are significant learnings relevant to post-scarcity community creation:

  • 1. LifeTrac infrastructure can be adapted readily to machining. In particular, we used the LifeTrac auger motor, which is typically used for post-hole augering. We used the Power Cube power source. This brings the price down drastically for the multimachine functions.
  • The available power of 20 hp and 5000 inch pounds of torque is more than sufficient for most heavy duty, industrial applications. It is obtained at zero additional infrastructure cost by piggybacking on existing infrastructure of LifeTrac.
  • No skill outside of basic custom fabrication is required to put together a heavy-duty drill as demonstrated.
  • Significantly more stiffness and accuracy is required for milling and drilling.
  • The stiffness and accuracy can be obtained readily by using The Open Source Multimachine techniques.
  • All together, we are observing the feasibility of a low-cost, unskilled-labor route of putting together high-performance, precision tooling. This assumes the availability of off-shelf components which embody the necessary precision (engine blocks, bushings, chuck, xy tables, quick-change toolpost, vise).
  • The precision components can be made in-house in the future from scrap at the cost of one’s skill – assuming availability of casting, surface grinding, and other bootstrapping equipment.

In short, now we’ve proved to ourselves that extremely stiff mass is required for machining operations – on the order of thousands of pounds for handling multiple horsepower turning operations.  The heavy mass of engine blocks, as proposed by the Multimachine, is a cheap and effective way to go for the accuracy and precision.

We should explain why used engine blocks are reportedly such a desirable choice for making precision machines. The basic point is that engine blocks already embody a high level of precision. The surface of the engine block is absolutely flat down to fractions of 1/1000 inch, the cylinders are at a perfect 90 degree angle to the surface, and the bell housing (if it exists on the engine block) is at a perfect right angle to the surface as well. This means that you can use the cylinder holes for mounting rotors, and they will be at a perfect right angle to the surface. You can attach a second engine block to the first by mounting the bell housing of one engine block on the surface of a second engine block. This mean that there are ways to create perfect right angles and parallels by using engine blocks. This constitutes the ready and low-cost ability to obtain precision. The engine blocks already have the precision, and by using basic techniques, one can use that to the advantage of building high performance tools.

The only difficulty with the engine blocks is that they will have to be adapted to the particular use. This could be time-consuming, since it is not easy to get a steady or uniform supply of scrap engine blocks. This is not welcome news from the standpoint of open source replicability, but we’ll have to bite the bullet on this one for now. I have talked to the lead developer of the Multimachine over a year ago, asking how many different Multimachines have been replicated after he built and published his concept. He told me that he was afraid to ask that of his audience, doubting that any have been made. The point is that time-consuming adaptation stands in the way of rapid replication. I think there are ways to go around that with engine blocks, and I suspect we’ll make significant contributions on this point.

What is the next step after or alternative to used engine blocks if one requires low-cost replicability? Yes, it is recursion down to starting from scratch by melting metal. This point needs further explanation, since it’s highly relevant to post-scarcity economies. The multimachine has brought us to a deeper discussion on metal. Metal is one of the keys to advanced civilization, and it is also critical to a post-scarcity civilization.

Open Source Machining and Implications for Creating a New Civilizaton from Scratch

It is unlikely that scrap engine blocks will be available for ever. At the very least, their supply is not consistent. Thus, we believe that a post-scarcity economy requires the ability to generate the capacity for precision machining from scratch.

This fits in to our general formula of recasting a new civilization from scrap metal. This builds upon the general notions on metalwork presented already in last year’s Factor e Live Distillation Part 6, Personal Fabrication. One year later, we’re reporting some details of what constitutes the ability to recast a new civilization at the cost of scrap matal. (To put this into perspective of open source ecotechnology, scrap metal is the interim step, prior to the ability to smelt rock into metal in a resource-based economy.)

First, why do we talk of metal here in particular? This is because metal is a critical component of advanced civilization. There are no alternatives known yet for producing engines and airplanes, or for transfering electricity from one point to another. Steel is critical for today’s agriculture – for tractors and combines. Steel is critical for today’s energy production – whether solar turbines, windmills, or coal-fired turbines, or generator engines. Steel is critical for transportation – from cars, trains, to tractors and trailers.

Metal is the foundation of modern civilization – so emphasis on absolute mastery of extracting, producing, using, and transforming, and recycling metal should be the foundation of any post-scarcity civilization-building program. We need to master metal in our work on the global village construction set. We need an integrated program for processing metal into useful form.

The general, comprehensive process of mastery over metal that we propose immediately consists of induction furnace-hot processing-surface grinding-machining and cutting-CNC operations. That’s it. We are not considering the smelting of metal from rocks because, strategically speaking, metal is to be remelted readily from existing supplies mined in junkyards.

If we can master these above processes – then we have the ability to build anything from scratch – including the precision Multimachine, without relying on industrial detritus engine blocks. If we master the above processes, we can not only make raw feedstock metal, but also all types of machines and devices from that metal – including the machine tools to build other machines. With the addition of automation, we have the capacity for self-replication of the products and toolchains.

Here is further explanation of the above metalworking processes.

The induction furnace is our preferred route to metal melting. It is efficient and clean, as it runs on electricity. We have also secured seed funding to opensource the process, for which we are currently soliciting bids. If we can succeed in building an open source induction furnace, than we have created a low-cost way to produce feedstock metal from abundant (s)crap. One can literally scour fencerows and junkyards, and create virgin metal – for building the substance of post-scarcity. Critical details needed to be acknowledged here include: (1), how to alloy metals; (2), how to purify metals if the scrap is corroded or unclean; (3) how to transport, shred or acquire shredded feedstock for the furnace; and others.

Hot processing includes hot rolling, casting, forging, surface treating, hardening, alloying, wire drawing, extruding, welding and others. From this point, we have usable wire, sheet, shape, bar, rod, ball, or other form necessary to build things. Regarding feasibility, we know that most of these processes occur on the scale of large factories. Consistent with the trends of technological miniaturization, we don’t see why the above processes can’t occur on the scale of small Factor e’s. In particular, take hot rolling, with powerful rollers powered by LifeTrac hydraulic motors. I could foresee that a 1000 square foot lab would be sufficient to rock and roll many useful metal profiles, like bars 1/2″ thick by 12″ wide.

Next, we have to put special emphasis on surface grinding. This is the critical link to precision machining. Surface grinding is the method of obtaining high precision surface finish on metal. Thus, we can make the perfect flat surface finishes and 90 degree surfaces by rotating the workpiece. This is the key to any precision device, xy table, machining table, machine motion system, etc. The flat surface is the foundation of any discussion on precision. In particular, we can cast a cube-like block – then finish it with a surface grinder – and we have the basis for building a precision Multimachine.

Next we have cutting and machining. This includes acetylene torch, plasma cutter, cold cutting, metal shearing, hole punching, milling, drilling, lathing, and others. With this we can turn metal stock into parts, engines, threaded parts, and precision motion parts like rack, threaded rod, or ball screw. If we add CNC to the above by using electronics, then we have the capacity to produce automation.

This is recasting civilization at the cost of scrap in a nutshell. Next in line for us at Factor e are the engine block-based Multimachine, CNC torch table finshing, CNC RepRap building, ironworker building, cold cut saw building, induction furnace opensourcing, and so froth. Jump in and help out.


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  2. Allen

    There is a flaw (perhaps a fatal one) in the limitations or restrictions of using an induction furnace that seem to likely condemning this to never launching.

    Actually using induction furnaces, which are fairly efficient & convenient, is not possible in the “recasting civilization at the cost of scrap” environment of which is likely to occur, because they will only work in an environment which has an abundance of cheap and plentiful electricity.

    The loss of efficiency to actually build the power generation systems, just to be able to run an induction furnace is far more than what the costs would be to just use some older technology, like a blast furnace powered by charcoal/oil/gas, etc…

    One would also need the iron/steel output from said furnaces to be able to build the infrastructures with which to run the induction furnace, so there is a Catch-22.

    For something that is both sustainable and feasibly (re)constructed by anyone else, it must not be reliant upon the actual production of current society, just what we’ve learned from the technology?

    OTOH, it is still possible to build usable and functional blast furnaces from scraps or from scratch with clays, and produce iron or steel from scrap metal, with a blast furnace, and using the Bessemer process, or stepping forward in time, perhaps a pure oxygen injection to produce high quality steels, but not have to depend upon the output/production of current industrialized society to permit the build to proceed.

    1. Marcin

      Thank you for your comment. Abundant electricity – biomass-fueled power generation and solar concentrator power – is one of the basic cornerstones of the Global Village Construction Set. For more details, please see the case study on Open Source Ecology discussed in Kevin Carson’s Homebrew Industrial Revolution at .

  3. John Griessen

    Congrats on incorporating CEBs and your tractor into the design of this high power high torque drill press! I think the induction furnaces you want can evolve from the medium power cooktop types.

    For a lathe bed, Ihave some practical ideas using what you have so far:
    A worn straight six or eight cylinder truck diesel motor block would be good — the cylinder head mounting bolt holes could locate ways that can be adjusted by shimming between the way bottoms and the cyl block face. The big thick stiff plate for mounting a driven chuck could attach to the cyl block front cover faces by adding extra drilled tapped holes in the cast iron for the front covers. Additional strength of attaching a front plate might be gained by cutting low tolerance slots in the cyl block sides behind the front cyl and clamping from them to the front mounting plate. Alternatively to slots, through holes going through the block at one of the cylinders could be cut with your drill press and some filing to allow thick stiff struts to pass through the block and clamp from them to the front plate. I’m thinking of 1 inch bolts 8 inches long to go with your one inch hole drilling capability and reach the front engine cyl… For mill use the bell housing end projections might just be in the way and cut it off.

  4. Lewis

    Microwave induction furnace: successful experiment->

    What is the source of the chatter? The part being machined, the spindle, the headstock, the table, the tool holder, the cutting tool, or inappropriate spindle speed?

    Perhaps a picture of your setup so we can try to help diagnose the problem?

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