The future of manufacturing

Death Star under construction

OK, probably not the best image to represent manufacturing in outer space, but I couldn't think of anything else

You may have seen my earlier post on the future of shopping. One interesting element about the retail debate is how retailers have forgotten about the globalisation of manufacturing and the loss of local jobs around a decade ago, which they were largely quite happy about because it meant cheaper products (and higher margins).

The bulk of what we buy today is now “Made in China” or some other low-labour cost country. Global logistics is at a level of maturity where this doesn’t have any negative impact on customers’ ability to get things fast. For example last year I ordered an iMac from the Apple Store, and it was assembled in China, despatched within 24 hours, and on my doorstep in a matter of days. It wasn’t so long ago that you had to rely on local retailers to bring over stock in bulk, or wait for a shipping container to be filled.

So what’s next for manufacturing? I reckon the answer lies in space.

It’s clean up there
Many kinds of product require an uber-clean environment to manufacture. Computer chips for instance, require a completely clean, dust-free atmosphere – any impurities in the silicon wafer and the resulting chip is useless. Terrestrial facilities have to deal with atmospheric impurities, but I reckon – although I could be wrong about this – dust would be less of a problem in outer space.

Heavy lifting? No problem!
Weightlessness is a boon if the manufacturing task involves large, heavy materials. You’d no longer have to deal with gravity, although this only improves manoeveurability – it’d still require a sufficiently strong force to move the object.

Space does weird (but cool) things
There’s probably a lot about the physics of space that we have yet to discover. One thing that we do know of however is cold welding, where metals in a vacuum fuse together simply by touching. The convenience of doing this in space is that you don’t have to create the vacuum. Who knows what other weird and useful effects might be possible!

How do we get it up there, and then back down?
So the question remains of how we get stuff up and down from space. At the beginning of this post I mentioned how global logistics allows items to be sent around the world at great speed, but we don’t yet have the same infrastructure for space, and rely on rockets and the like, which are expensive because they’re moving a large quantity of fuel required by the launching process as well as the payload.

We (human beings) have already had an answer to this since the late 19th Century – in the form of a space elevator designed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895! Basically, space elevators work by having an satellite in space held aloft in geo-stationery orbit, anchored to the ground via a large cable of sorts. The whole shebang is held up by centripetal force, like the hammer toss at the Olympics, where the circular motion of an object, combined with its weight, results in a net outwards force. The payload is then carried up and down this structure.

Imagine looking at the tag of a future product and seeing “Made in Space” :-) Wouldn’t that be cool?