Ever since we heard Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise utter the phrase “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” to a hole in the wall and then start sipping from his glass cup, we’ve been enthralled with the possibility of machines that could create something out of nothing. Having a “replicator” that can create a nice, hot cup of tea out of thin air, is probably a few centuries down the road (though the Keurig is close), but machines that can build things on their own is already a reality. Everyone has heard of 3D printers by now, and self-replicating machines and nanofabricators can’t be too far behind.
The first known mention of a “self-replicating machine” was attributed to William Paley in 1802. He postulated that the question of who originally made a watch would be rendered moot if it were demonstrated that the watch was able to make a copy of itself. This apparently got people thinking and in 1948 a man named John von Neumann provided a detailed conceptual proposal for a self-replicating system. These “Von Neumann” machines have become an integral part of several plans to eventually mine moons and the asteroid belt for ore, as well as for creating factories on the moon.
Then, in 1955 Philip K Dick, whose novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was the basis for the Blade Runner movies, wrote a short story called Autofac. This story is set many years after an apocalyptic war has wiped out most of human civilization and left a network of automated factories in operation. These “Autofacs” gather the resources they need on their own and produce the goods that previous civilizations needed. Even now, when a recovering human population does not need the goods but does need the resources the factories are consuming, they can’t figure out how to shut them down. I don’t want to ruin the surprise ending, but remember the phrase “the milk is pizzled”!
There is speculation that by the middle of this century, we will have operating nanofabricators or molecular assemblers that will be able to take raw material like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur, and create anything from a T-bone steak to a new laptop. After all, matter is made up of certain elements that can be “assembled” a molecule at a time if you have the right process and the right recipe. Food for thought, right?
Today of course, we have 3D printers that can build anything from cars to kidneys given the right materials, and “automated manufacturing systems” that can take raw material such as a sheet of steel, and create a fully functioning product to very exacting specifications. Winston Manufacturing is one of the few facilities in the country to possess the Salvagnini P4 + SL4 systems, which together make up the most efficient flexible manufacturing system (FMS) on the market today. We still have to make your Earl Gray tea the old-fashioned way, but contact us for a tour to see what we can create for you!