Ever since we heard Captain Picard utter “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot,” to a portal and then sip from his cup, we’ve been enthralled with machines that create something out of nothing. A replicator that can create hot tea out of thin air is probably a few centuries away (though the Keurig is close). But machines that build things on their own are already a reality. Everyone has heard of 3D printers. Self-replicating machines and nanofabricators can’t be far behind.
The first known mention of a “self-replicating machine” is attributed to William Paley in 1802. He thought the question of who originally made a watch would be rendered moot if the watch could make a copy of itself. In 1948 John von Neumann provided a detailed conceptual proposal for a self-replicating system. These “Von Neumann” machines are an integral part of plans to eventually mine the moon and asteroids for ore, as well as create lunar factories.
In 1955 Philip K Dick wrote a short story called Autofac. This story is set years after an apocalyptic war has wiped out most humans. Left behind is a network of autofacs, or automated factories. These autofacs autonomously gather resources and produce goods that previous civilizations needed. The 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 the autofacs down. I don’t want to ruin the ending, but remember the phrase “the milk is pizzled!”
From Fiction to Reality
There is speculation that in the next few decades we will have operating nanofabricators (or molecular assemblers) that take raw elements like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur, and create anything from a t-bone steak to a laptop. After all, matter is made up of elements and molecules. If you have the right process and the right recipe you can make anything. Food for thought, right?
Today we have 3D printers that can build anything from cars to kidneys, given the right materials. Automated manufacturing systems can take raw material, such as steel, and create a fully-functioning product to exacting specifications.
Winston Manufacturing is one of the few domestic facilities with the Salvagnini P4 + SL4 systems. Together, they make up the most efficient flexible manufacturing system (FMS) available. We still have to make Earl Gray tea the old-fashioned way, but contact us for a tour to see what our automation can create for you!