Omnifex Industries

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    I originally composed this essay in Summer 1989 and I have updated it only slightly.

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    As I noted in an earlier essay ("Omnifex"), not all of the goods we request will come from our personal Omnifices directly. Some things will be too heavy, others too big, and others may required chemical elements not found in the chemical soup flowing through our neighborhood distribution system (it may not be feasible or desirable to create a soup that contains all of the chemical elements). Those things are going to have to come out of Omnifices that are large enough and properly equipped to create and handle such goods. Those Omnifices will be installed in subterranean factories, robot factories built underneath the museums, malls, and parks that will comprise the public spaces in our cities.

    They won’t look like the factories that we’re accustomed to seeing. Indeed, we mostly won’t see them at all: all we will see will be the entrances and exits. If we were to enter one, we might form the impression that we had entered the realm of some rather sophisticated elves. To those of us accustomed to thinking of factories as places of frenetic motion and noise, these places, with their silence and their goods exuding slowly from the Omnifex plates that line the walls, would be eerie. It would be as if the factory were caught in a time warp that transformed the pace of its action into slow motion. It is in such places, under robotic supervision, that our furniture, household appliances, sculpture, automobiles, and other heavy goods will be created.

    To form a clearer picture in our minds of what’s going to be involved let’s assume that Casey Jones wants a new armchair. Being a railroad hobbyist, he’s going to want something a little out of the ordinary; specifically, an armchair with an armrest only on the right side. Toward that end he’s going to call two files into his Omnifex: the first contains records of locomotive design from the firm of Rogers, Ketchum & Grosvenor of Patterson, New Jersey (and in particular the design of the 4-6-0 that his namesake was driving that fateful night of 1900 Apr 30) and the second is the armchair listings. By commanding the Omnifex to configure the monitor into a split screen he will enable himself to search the armchair designs in a side-by-side comparison with the cab design of the 4-6-0 until he finds one that comes closest to looking like the engineer’s seat. Conjuring the instructions for that armchair into his Omnifex’s computer, he can then modify them into a set of instructions that will produce a one-armed armchair whose styling suggests the engineer’s seat in a late-Nineteenth Century locomotive. Satisfied with his design, he commands his Omnifex to make a chair in accordance with it.

    The Omnifex responds as he expects: it flashes on the monitor a message informing him that it’s refusing to make the chair itself and is reassigning the command. That means that the computer is calling the scheduling computer responsible for Casey’s neighborhood and asking whether a larger Omnifex will be available soon. The scheduling computer will usually assign the job to a factory close to Casey’s house, but if all the factories in the vicinity are tied up and will be unavailable for several hours or more, it will query the scheduling computers in surrounding neighborhoods. If that kind of search is necessary, then the scheduling computer will choose a factory on the basis of waiting time plus the time that will be required to transport the finished product to Casey’s house: in order to minimize the total time the scheduling computer may assign the job to a more distant factory if the waiting time is short enough to compensate the extra transportation time.

    When the scheduling computer has selected a factory, it makes the connection between Casey’s Omnifex and the factory so that the instructions for making Casey’s chair will be transferred into one of the factory’s Omnifices. That done, the scheduling computer then assigns two robots and a delivery van to receive the completed chair and deliver it to Casey.

    The Omnifex plate through which Casey’s chair is to be extruded is two meters wide by two meters high (it appears to be hanging on the wall like a painting), one of dozens of identical plates that line both walls of this strangely linear factory. At a casual glance it might appear to be a public garage with a strange-looking pallet in each of the parking spaces. A more attentive look reveals that the pallets are actually elaborate machines that reach up and support whatever is coming out of the Omnifex, holding it up so that its weight doesn’t pull on the Omnifex plate and try to tear the object loose or, worse, tear the Omnifex plate’s active surface before the object is finished. Here a set of lawn furniture may be coming out onto a pallet, there a pair of robots may be lifting a new sofa into the delivery van that they’ve parked in front of the pallet onto which it was extruded. A little further on two more robots have arrived at the end of a pallet mere seconds before the Omnifex at the other end finishes making Casey’s chair (at 72 centimeters an hour, the process has taken a little over an hour). Deftly the robots lift the chair, which has been created inside a seamless protective polyethylene bag, off the pallet, load it into their van, and then drive the van out of the factory to make the delivery.

    Because Casey lives in the Palms district of West Los Angeles, the factory chosen to make his chair is the one that runs straight for half a mile under the old Southern Pacific right of way that runs through the area. Actually there are several factories strung out under that particular right of way, from Santa Monica in the west eastward toward downtown Los Angeles: the particular factory under discussion is the one that extends from Military Avenue in the west to just past Overland Avenue in the east. On the surface the right of way has been landscaped as a narrow park and, possibly, the tracks that used to run down its center may have been replaced for use by hobby clubs like Casey’s, which run authentic replicas of late-Nineteenth Century locomotives and rolling stock out of a small yard just west of our factory, near the intersection of Pico and Sepulveda Boulevards.

    Similar factories with larger Omnifices will be built under our larger parks and will produce vehicles. Every conceivable make of car will emerge from these factories, along with trucks, trailers, motorcycles, small boats on trailers, and so on. Again robots will intercept the goods as they are finished and drive them or tow them to their owners’ homes.

    Much larger objects, such as cruise ships and airplanes, will not come directly from an Omnifex. Instead, Omnifices in isolated factories or shipyards will make subassemblies and parts that robots will assemble. Those larger Omnifices will also create subassemblies and parts for buildings as well as any other materials the robots will need to build homes, restaurants, museums, stadiums, and any other large structures that we want in our renovated cities.

    There is, of course, nothing to prevent us from putting Omnifices into space. The smaller versions, along with Omniphages, will be the foundation of all life-support systems and will provide all of the same consumer goods that their terrestrial counterparts provide. But the truly interesting ones will be the giants that are only possible in a weightless environment.

    We need only send a team of robots with a standard Omniphage and a standard Omnifex to one of the asteroids that fly around the sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The Omniphage will feed its output directly into the Omnifex, so when the robots push material dug out of the asteroid into the Omniphage the Omnifex will convert it into the parts of an even larger Omniphage/fex. Some of the lighter chemical elements may have to be brought from Jupiter’s moons by rocketfreighter, but that won’t cause any additional difficulties: after all, by that time spaceflight will cost us nothing.

    In a continuation of the process of creating Omnifices the robots will use their Omnifex to create a new Omnifex plate two meters wide by over one hundred and fifty meters long and then use it to make an Omniphage plate of about the same size. They’ll mount the plates back to back and ‘fex up the parts necessary to complete the assembly. At first solar panels to provide power for the new Omniphage/fex will come from the first one, but as the new one is powered up it will be used to create some of its own panels itself. When it’s fully powered up the robots will use that second Omniphage/fex to create a third one, that third one involving an Omnifex plate one hundred and fifty meters square. The kilometers-long conveyors that bring fresh asteroidal and other material to the Omniphage plate will extend sunward in a widening array that will give the whole installation the look of a fuzzy cone or pyramid. The Omnifex plate will face starward and solar-panel arrays will spread out from its sides like the petals of a giant flower.

    When that third unit is ready it will be used to create spaceships. It will create them complete and whole: no assembly will be required. When a spaceship comes out of the Omnifex its crew will be able to board it immediately and fly it away. Nor will those crews have long to wait for their ship to be created. Fully fueled and ready to go, our Space Shuttle stands 56.1 meters tall on the launching pad. At a creation rate of 72 centimeters per hour the Omnifex could bring a copy of the Space Shuttle out lengthwise in three and a quarter days. If the Omnifex were to create the Shuttle back to front (23.4 meters), the process would take only 1.35 days.

    But that superfactory in the Asteroid Belts will not be used to create copies of the Space Shuttle. It’s going to create rocketships for interplanetary flight and, eventually, for interstellar flight. Applying the full power of the Omnifex to translate design ideas into hardware in a few weeks at most, it will greatly accelerate the pace at which spacefaring technology evolves. Today that pace is slowed by the very complexity of the machines involved, so much so that the Space Shuttle, our most advanced rocketship, is based largely on the technology of the early 1970's. In the next century few people will need to fly a rocketship that’s twenty years out of date. A crew may ‘phage a ship that’s only a few years old in order to ‘fex up an improved version.

    Someday, if we’re clever enough and if the laws of Nature permit it, we may develop hyperdrive-propelled starships like those portrayed in Star Trek, ships that take a shortcut through hyperspace and travel to the planets of other stars as if they had flown faster than light. Our superfactory will be able to create a Constitution-class starcruiser like the U.S.S. Enterprise in something under eighteen days, giving Starfleet a twenty-starship squadron in a year. If we’re really clever, the Omnifex will be able to create those ships complete with their loads of antimatter fuel.

    Even if superluminal flight is not possible and must remain forever in the realm of science fantasy, we will still leave our mark on the galaxy. Ships with robot crews will carry cargoes of Omniphages, Omnifices, and database libraries across interstellar space to our solar system’s nearest neighbors. In the planetary systems of Alpha Centauri, of Barnard’s Star, of Tau Ceti, of Epsilon Eridani, and of others our robots will seek out debris fields in the form of asteroid belts and comet clouds. Using that cosmic scrap left over from the formation of planets, the robots will ‘fex up new factories, which will then create more robots, more rocketships, and a communications station, all to carry out research in that alien solar system and transmit the findings to Earth. Meanwhile the original team of robots will have repaired and refueled their interstellar ship and resumed their journey through the galaxy. They will leave behind them a robotic infrastructure that, in addition to conducting basic research, is fully capable of creating space habitats to house any humans who may follow. And if they find natives,...?

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