The previous two examples, Personal and Industrial Factories, have considered designs at a single location. For this example we consider a network of distributed production nodes at different locations. The network can expand in two ways. Each node can self-expand as in the previous examples. In addition, nodes can collaborate on building new nodes. As in all our examples, the nodes and network as a whole use part of their output for expansion, and the rest for end products for users. We will call such a network a Distributed Production Network. Such a network is likely to transmit data and payments through the existing Internet. By analogy to the World Wide Web, we might also call it a World Wide Factory.
We will start with a general description of the concept, and in later sections develop more detail on how such a production network is designed and built.
A Distributed Production Network consists of nodes and the transfer systems that connect them. A Node is a location that contains some set of design or production capabilities. It might be as simple as a single machine or independent designer, or as complex as a fully expanded factory. Nodes transfer inputs and outputs to each other according to agreed protocols, and with outside entities by any available method. Transfers include all types of inputs and outputs, physical and electronic. Ownership of nodes may be independent or by shared entities (associations, corporations, etc.) A Cluster is a set of nodes that are close enough to effectively work together. As examples, they may be co-located in an industrial park, or within a single metropolitan area. The effective working distance will tend to vary inversely with the mass transferred between them and positively with the value of the transfers. Thus design nodes may work together from anywhere in the world, because design data is high value and zero mass. Gravel, on the other hand, is high mass and low value, so moving it between nodes may only be effective a short distance. Members of a cluster may optionally set preferences or priorities for transfers between themselves. The Network is the set of all nodes and clusters that share the same transfer protocols, plus the internal and external transfer systems that do the delivery. This allows them to communicate data, distribute work, and collaborate on making products, including new nodes to expand the network. Nodes may freely join or leave the network, although agreed work-in-progress and transfers should be completed before leaving.
Node and Transfer TypesEdit
The nodes within a given network all share the same transfer protocols, but they can have widely varying contents and functions. We can identify node types by descriptive names, but it should be understood that nodes can evolve and expand over time, and therefore become a different type. Descriptive names are used to help understand how a network operates, but they are not mandatory. We can also treat the design of a network in the abstract. A specialty node only performs one or a few related tasks, while a general purpose node can perform a wide variety of them. Examples of specialty nodes include design nodes, mining nodes, and power nodes. Larger general purpose nodes can be described as seed, expanded, or industrial factories. Smaller ones can be described as workshops. Both nodes and transfer systems can be described by their functionality. For example, they can be described as manual or fully automated.
The transfer systems that connect nodes can be divided into internal and external systems. Internal ones are owned by network members, for example delivery trucks. External systems are owned by outside entities, such as an Internet Service Provider or a public road. Transfers between network nodes can be logically distinguished from inputs and outputs outside the network. However, the same systems used between geographically separated nodes can also be used for transfers outside the network, with perhaps the exception of not using the network protocols. Thus the physical design of the transfer systems does not distinguish between destinations. These systems can be described by the type of entity being transferred, such as data, payments, human passengers, bulk materials, or finished products.
The network operations concept follows a communicate, agree, and execute sequence. This is similar to how traditional business has operated with advertising, quotations, and contracts, except these steps may be entirely automated by the network protocols. In principle, each node advertises their capabilities and costs in a standardized format. This could be on a distributed peer-to-peer network or as data connected to a website, but that design decision can be left for later. The capabilities information can include items like equipment capacities, production location, cost, schedule, and other data. Another node, which needs an item made, can search the network for suitable capabilities. They can then send requests for information or requests for quotes for custom work, or place an order if it is a standard item. The receiving node then accepts the order, places it on that node's schedule, and communicates progress from time to time. In an early development stage some of the steps may be manual, while in a fully developed network this may be entirely automated.
Design files for a product contain enough information to build it. This includes required materials, quantities, and processes, shapes of the parts, assembly instructions, etc. The format for design files is also standardized, so that they can be matched to node capabilities. When a user, either from outside or part of the network, wants a product made, for example a dining table, they first review the available designs, or if they want something custom, the capabilities of design nodes. Once they have chosen a final design, their local ordering software compares the product requirements to the available advertised capabilities for final assembly and delivery. It generates a rank-ordered list of nodes or clusters which can deliver the completed item. The customer can review these candidates, contact them for additional information, or simply go ahead and submit the order. The orders include the design files that specify what is to be built, delivery instructions, and proof of available payment. The node that gets the order, in turn sends out orders to suppliers as needed. For example, a woodworking node that completes the dining table may send out orders for lumber and hardware. For complex items, a single original order may generate a chain of additional orders through the network and from outside suppliers. A commercial node may be able to complete the entire product, while small individual nodes may need to split the work between them. One node may supply lumber of the correct sizes, another uses a table saw and other woodworking tools to shape the parts, a third does the finishing and assembly, and a fourth delivers the finished product. The order generation and delivery of the design files may be entirely automated once the customer authorizes it.
In order to pay for the various production tasks, the person making the order places sufficient funds in escrow on an electronic payment network such as Bitcoin. Transaction records are public in this type of network, thus the production node operators can see the funds have been placed in escrow. The escrow guarantees the funds are available, but they are not delivered until the work is complete. When a node completes their work, and delivers their items to the next node, or the customer, the escrow is notified to release the funds to pay them. This step may also optionally be manual or automated. Because transaction records are public, nodes can prove they completed the work and were paid. If order data are also a matter of public record, the combination of order and completion history serves as a reputation measure for nodes. This can be used by future customers to help select nodes for new work.
Network Creation and GrowthEdit
Such a network can start from existing non-networked businesses and entities who agree to work together. They do not have to devote all of their work to the network, but can allow it to be added incrementally. The first step beyond just associating with each other is for one or more design nodes to develop the transfer protocols, and then supporting software to handle purely electronic transfers such as design data and payments. At this level the actual work to satisfy single orders is still by whatever conventional means they already used. The next step is creating product designs with sufficient information to distribute tasks across multiple nodes, either in parallel from the originator or as a chain where one node generates sub-tasks for other nodes. Along with the designs, nodes can begin to automate their operations and responses to tasks.
The network is intended to operate and grow on an ad-hoc basis in a distributed fashion. New nodes can establish themselves by posting their capabilities to the network, and can change or remove that data at any time. They may start out with purely manual operations, and only download network software to communicate capabilities and orders. Some of the products individuals can order are new production elements, which allows them to expand and automate their capabilities. The network can develop by adding new nodes, new product designs, and internal production of more elements. As the network grows, it can become more automated, and produce a wider range of needed items internally.
It will take work to design, build, and operate a Distributed Production Network. There have to be enough advantages in having such a network to justify its creation. At this point in developing the concept we cannot prove those advantages exist. We can, however, list potential benefits, and then investigate them further as the concept evolves:
- Individuals can join the network with minimal capabilities at first, but gain the benefits of the rest of the network immediately. It may lower the barrier to entry compared to conventional business start ups.
- To the extent the ordering, payment, and production tasks are automated, it would have low overhead and high productivity.
- Routing of individual tasks to the nearest/fastest/cheapest nodes for each customer may be more efficient than centralized production at a single location.
- Filling orders for a wide range of customers may optimize and stabilize production schedules, and automatic reassignment of tasks to other nodes may better handle delays or breakdowns.
- Enhanced privacy is possible if the orders and payments are only identified by account numbers, and the final delivery is a closed container. The shipper only needs to know the destination, but not what is being shipped or the price.
- Ownership and leasing strategies may be automated, so that at any time people are working for themselves (with automated equipment). This may have tax advantages.
Modern production equipment and communications do not require everything to be in one place, like a traditional factory. It is still useful for design purposes to treat a set of production equipment as an integrated entity, such as a workshop or factory, despite the pieces being physically separated and under different ownership. The set may function more efficiently if the elements are located close together, but that is a design choice based on circumstances. Other factors like availability of start-up funding and staff may dictate more distributed locations. Even if the elements are widely distributed, it makes sense for operating efficiency to design them to work together and use standardized interfaces and protocols. There are existing examples of such distributed systems, such as the Internet itself, and the traffic control network for airplanes.