WOWIE - factories programmable like PCs to make anything

The first germ of the Wide-Ownership Workshop Industrial Ecology idea came from visiting a makerspace, Freeside Atlanta. It used to be located in a complex of giant old Quonset-style former cotton warehouses, surrounded by barbed wire in a rough neighborhood. The complex was always open, with a guard at the gate – I’m not really sure what for – they seemed to let anybody in. It was a “temporary autonomous zone”, a scene. The several parallel buildings, each several hundred feet long had been split into dozens of workshops and other spaces, including a couple of illegal nightclubs. On the Thursday night I visited, it was energetic outside and in.

Freeside had several thousand square feet of all kinds of tools and materials. You could work all night if you felt like it and most of the other places would be active, too – when I visited, one guy was getting the latest iteration of a part run off on another shop’s laser cutter, while he went across the alley for a beer at the club. He got a sweetheart deal, paying only slightly more than the cost of running the cutter – in exchange, he would run off whatever the laser-cutter guy needed on Freeside’s tools.

Why couldn’t this continue? I wondered, though cool scenes never seem to last. Why couldn’t it be scaled up so you could make anything?

Another germ of the idea came from ISS engineer Dani Eder’s “Seed Factory Project”, which started as an idea for building a moon base with the lowest possible launch cost by first shipping up a self-reproducing mining and manufacturing base. Only things that couldn’t be produced from local materials would be shipped up: semiconductors, plastics, chemicals – but everything heavy in the facilities, vehicles, robots and other machinery would be made out of lunar aluminum, glass and so forth. Dani realized that this would be somewhat less impossible if you didn’t try to ship the self-reproducing factory to the moon first. After that the idea morphed into a non-automated sort of super-makerspace, which I wasn’t too enthusiastic about. Then his wikibook on the idea turned into a sort of giant government requirements document-style thing, which lost me totally.

I had long been enthusiastic about the idea of molecular nanotechnology, reading Drexler’s Engines of Creation in 1989, and his very technical Nanosystems when it came out. In 2005 I coached a couple of boys, age 10 and 11, from my electronics class for gifted homeschoolers in a project for the Toshiba Exploravision invention contest. One of the boys wanted to invent something that would let him be a for-real giant. I couldn’t think of a way immediately, but then I remembered “utility fog”, which should allow basically anything you could do in a Star Trek holodeck. We came up with a pretty detailed design, with processing, networking, cooling, power, optical phased-array collective displays, actuators … and how to apply it to education: telepresence, historical simulations and simulations of dangerous chemical experiments. Whittled it down to ten pages, somehow. It was the only entry in the state to get honors that year.

In 2014, I had an epiphany about how to make self-reproducing factories work economically with any degree of automation – not only to work economically, but to work better than the current economy. As I wrote then:

Each business has an incentive to pay as little as possible in wages, which today is becoming more and more possible through automation, but when everybody does this, demand dries up because fewer people have enough money to buy. The challenge is to not only make things people want, but also to have an economic environment in which they are paid enough to buy to buy the things made.

The most direct possible solution is to have the productivity of machines be directly owned by those who would otherwise be factory workers or passive investors.

Have the machines located together in a factory in a district of factories, but have each machine owned by a single person, each person owning enough machines to pay the equivalent of a middle- to upper-middle- class income from the machines’ productivity. Owners buy these machines with low-interest rate loans secured by the machines themselves. Owners swap time on their machines with owners of other machines, giving each owner access to many specialized tools, effectively multiplying their capital.

Owners can make not only products, but machines, particularly more specialized and productive machines. These both serve as security for new loans, but also produce money directly, since nominal “machine-hours” are the internal currency of the factory for swapping time on each others’ machines. Loans are also valued in machine-hours, as are the fees to insure, house and operate them.

[continued later]


That was Henry Ford’s realization behind introducing the assembly line and the $5 wage. Once the increased productivity worker could afford to buy a car, the market would explode and Ford would make more money.

It is the same realization which the smart financialization guys in US industry & government forgot. When they offshored the work to China to get the evanescent benefit of lower wages, they also destroyed the purchasing power of that productive worker – not just for themselves, but for all the other businesses which had depended on that now-unemployed worker’s purchasing power. “Tragedy of the Commons” – along with the arrogant stupidity of those who rule us.


One more benefit of this initiative would be technological resilience. Instead of centrally manufactured products with planned obsolescence – we could steer towards repairable modular architectures. I’m thinking farming and industrial equipment would be particularly suitable for such an approach.

One example of repairable modular architectures was IBM PC: it led to a blossoming of innovation.

In the big scheme of things, this could be an effective answer to the dominance of centralized Chinese manufacturing.


It doesn’t scale. Like, at all. It is piecework for the 21st century. The idea of swapping time on others’ machines requires not just jacks of all trades, but masters of many trades. Utterly exclusionary to normal people, too.

Machines that have output even remotely competitive with modern factories are astonishingly complicated–many man-hours of training/research would be required of even the smartest owners to operate them. And when not-so-small objects are being produced, you also need teams of laborers to feed the machines their source material and carry off the results.

Modern mass production is not an economic fluke–it is the natural result of technical advancements and the necessary result if a society wishes a high standard of living.

Note that 3D printing, aka additive manufacturing, is even slower than subtractive manufacturing (cutting/machining), which is why mass production uses casting/forging/molding to go straight from the simplest possible raw materials to something very close to finished shape and size. (Minimizing machining.)

I call BS on this.


Your concerns are reasonable, but I had to cut quite a bit from the proposal to make it readable. For example, just the list of manufacturing processes I was able to list off the top of my head ran to nearly 400 types. Just a few of the most major types from that list are covered by the Step-CNC standard

The STEP-NC AP238 standard is the result of a ten year international effort to replace the RS274D (ISO 6983) M and G code standard with a modern associative language that connects the CAD design data used to determine the machining requirements for an operation with the CAM process data that solves those requirements.

STEP-NC builds on the previous ten year effort to develop the STEP neutral data standard for CAD data, and uses the modern geometric constructs in that standard to define device independent tool paths, and CAM independent volume removal features.

The entity-relationship diagram for the standard is about 135 megapixels, but it loads fast, being in vector format.

Some of your concerns will be addressed in later posts


Seed factories

Seed factories are factories with small, general-purpose toolsets which can produce most of the equipment for both special-purpose conventional factories and for more sophisticated general-purpose factories. Using a small, highly-automated shop with general-purpose tools to build more specialized tools to make a full factory, then expanding into a partially co-located / partially distributed network of semi-independent production shops and factories, the Seed Factory system gradually vertically integrates its suppliers’ capabilities into its network.

In the Seed Factory system, rather than a monolithic corporation owning the machines, instead shops and departments are their own separate entities, which lease machines from worker/owners or small partnerships who buy machines on credit secured by the machines. To produce complex products, time on different machines would be swapped between owners on an internal market. When the machine owner decides he wants a product, he can make it himself. Using an open-source design which also contains the instructions for its own manufacture, the machine owner can edit the design, make whatever changes he wishes and get a custom product at a low price. (The design is licensed for a small fee from the Seed Factory Foundation, which handles crediting royalties to designers and other contributors.)

Through automated software which creates an internal market, the machine owner swaps the hours on his machine for hours on several other machines, schedules when he will use those machines, and buys materials, usually from a co-located wholesale-buying club’s warehouse which carries everything from sheet metal to microcontrollers. The raw materials to produce the product are owned by the machine owner, as is the right to use all the equipment needed to manufacture it. Any additional labor the machine owner needs along the way is handled by contracts facilitated by the same automated software using standardized contract terms.

There is no succession of taxes and multiplication of profits, overhead, shipping, storing and marketing charges for each step of production and distribution as there is in conventional distribution. Both production and direction of production are thus distributed, bottom-up and market-optimized.

As the system grows, positive network effects emerge from owners having access to greater numbers of specialized tools. Since outside customers pay more for production than owners, this would encourage Seed Factory investment from customers wishing to gain the price advantages of participating in the internal market. The small size of owner entities and many shops exempts them from a vast amount of burdensome regulation and also limits the size of business failures.

Another important aspect of the seed factory system plan is its handling of intellectual property, rewarding innovation and development sufficiently to accumulate a capital stock of designs and documentation while encouraging the use of that information capital by offering reasonable and predictable fees and terms. The design will typically be licensed through the non-profit Seed Factory Foundation, which handles valuation and payment for the use, documentation and testing of designs and all their components. The valuation system will be complex, but will use ability and reputation-weighted polling of users and designers as inputs to reduce bureaucratic overhead and limit bias in valuation of design features.

This is all enabled by software that handles everything: part routing, tool movements, documentation, assembly, testing, and even co-evolves part designs with the manufacturing processes required to make each part to achieve maximum part quality and production efficiency. This software uses advanced techniques such as Geometric Algebra, machine learning, agent-based market simulations, compressed sensing, sensor fusion and other proven but underused methods to allow using a factory like a computer to produce almost any product – even including new factories – by running a pre-written, cheaply available program, which may be modified to taste, combined with other designs and improved upon – with painless and transparent payment for producing designs others find useful.

The advantages in efficiency, sustainable growth, and social benefits are obvious, as is the potential to transform the economy into a better one, increase independence, national and individual security and apply some of the backlog of yet-unused technological advances to improving life.


[here are more detailed thoughts on business aspects of the scheme, likely too detailed, given that this is just a starting point for developing concrete plans]

Owners swap time on their machines with owners of other machines, or borrow or lend machine time or rent time on other machines in the factory complex, giving each owner access to many specialized tools, effectively multiplying their capital. While ownership would be restricted, renting and leasing would not, so large-scale manufacturing with low requirements for capital investment would be encouraged. A single owner retaining title through all steps from raw materials to finished parts, through assembly and testing will be able to make a finished good with no succession of profits, overhead, marketing, taxes that ordinarily makes goods cost the consumer at least three times as much as the cost of materials and machine time.

There are also potential tax and regulatory advantages to this form of organization. Owners can deduct the depreciation of the machines from their taxes, and when fully depreciated, they can sell the machine to another owner, buy a new or used machine with the proceeds, then depreciate their “new” machine all over again. The paper depreciation reduces the effective tax rate a great deal, while the actual value of the machinery declines by an amount orders of magnitude smaller than the value of the products it produces over the same period. If those products are for the owner’s personal use, there is no income tax on the value added. In countries with VAT, it is paid only on the materials, not the finished product.

Having the production network be composed of small entities means that they are not subject to most of the burdensome and counterproductive reporting and regulatory requirements that apply to larger firms, while still being subject to the requirements of the large entity (possibly a co-op) that leases out space in the factory, to the standardized contract terms for time swaps etc. Being applied so much closer to the facts of individual cases, applying better judgment is possible than is the case with today’s sprawling, conflicting and incomprehensible thickets of regulations. The small size of owner entities and many shops also exempts them from a vast amount of burdensome regulation and limits the size of business failures .

To keep the market efficient, without tending to monopoly or monopsony, mechanisms are needed to restrict over-concentration of ownership of the machinery itself and to ensure that each owner has multiple potential customers / lessors, while at the same time encouraging production at all scales from prototyping to multimillion-unit runs. One possible approach is to have standard charter language for member businesses requiring 51% ownership and control of every individual machine up to ~$1M to be by an individual or a single small (<~5 person) partnership, and restricting any individual or corporation’s ownership share of capital equipment (as opposed to leasing for use) to perhaps four times the median share would help ensure both owners’ independence and the goal of broad distribution of capital profits, while at the same time allowing large-scale manufacturing with leased equipment and thus low capital requirements. Exact limits will be different, but some limit on ownership concentration of the machinery itself is needed to maintain the character of the network as a market of equals and the system’s goal of supporting consumer spending via owner income as an alternative or supplement to labor wages. Restrictions on total loans by affiliated finance companies and on insurance coverage for machines could achieve much the same effect in a less direct way, and could be soft limits in the form of higher rates for more concentrated risks. Non-controlling indirect ownership and ownership of the holding companies and their machine-leasing shop affiliates could have much looser limits, but other ways of getting around the productive capital ownership concentration limit’s intent will need to be discouraged to maintain the broad capital income pattern underpinning market demand.


Totally non-responsive to my critique. Choice of machine tool language means nothing to the physical demands of running machinery after programming.

Mwah-ha-ha!! So, AGI is prerequisite. Alrighty, then.

I happen to operate a small business that, having less than 10 employees, avoids almost all environmental and safety regulations. As an S-Corp, it avoids all the stuff public corporations have to do, but doesn’t avoid any of the onerous tax and financial BS. Large corporations are able to scale all kinds of regulation compliance to the point they still have a lighter load per any measure of output I can think of.

So, no, none of your hand-waving and wishful thinking has convinced me at all. Still BS.

Fixed that for you.

Well, not so far.


Well, here’s double your money back, Phil: :smirk:. and I’ll throw in a free Fisking.

“It doesn’t scale.”

I call BS on this.

“The idea of swapping time on others’ machines requires not just jacks of all trades, but masters of many trades.”

No, but so what if it does? De-skilling is de-humanizing.

“Machines that have output even remotely competitive with modern factories are astonishingly complicated”

:paperclip: Clippy says: “It looks like you’re trying to be condescending. Would you like help?” :slightly_smiling_face:

“many man-hours of training/research would be required of even the smartest owners to operate them.”

If it only requires hours or days to learn how to do a job, that would be remarkably quick. As I said on page 1 of the paper I sent to you, a portion I cut here for brevity: “enough to pay the equivalent of a middle- to upper-middle- class income from the machines’ productivity, perhaps supplemented by machine-tending and repair work for those on the lower end of the capital range.”

“And when not-so-small objects are being produced, you also need teams of laborers to feed the machines their source material and carry off the results.”

Early on, factories will be less automated, it may take a long time before they are fully automated. Even so, intra-factory transport such as overhead- and regular rails, cranes, cart robots, arm-and-cart robots are early in the roadmap.

“Modern mass production is not an economic fluke–it is the natural result of technical advancements and the necessary result if a society wishes a high standard of living.”

I’m not sure what you’re arguing here – that nothing better than modern production is possible? That offshoring, de-skilling, declining real wages and all the profits of automation and increasing productivity going to rentiers is, by some bizarre inversion in your mind, equivalent not just to “a high standard of living”, but to the only way of making that happen a society? On the contrary, it is proven that modern production is not capable of sustaining a high standard of living in the US, with most production happening in low wage counties, taking engineering and design with it, leading to most of the population making their living through less productive activities such as services and financial speculation. Or maybe you’re arguing that mass production isn’t possible with a WOWIE system? Read the paper: the system will let large manufacturers lease as much time as they want, and they won’t have the capital expense and illiquidity of owning their own factories. WOWIE would dramatically increase the demand for factory automation equipment, which should be good for your own business in automation products, if you play it right – though perhaps not for the manufacturers whose products you presently sell.

No, only some system essentially like what I am proposing is capable of solving the core problems of post-industrial economies. What’s your better alternative – business as usual?

“Note that 3D printing, aka additive manufacturing, is even slower than subtractive manufacturing (cutting/machining), which is why mass production uses casting/forging/molding to go straight from the simplest possible raw materials to something very close to finished shape and size. (Minimizing machining.)”

I am aware of that, additive manufacturing has its place, particularly in making special tools, jigs, patterns, and so forth, but seldom for other parts.

Your comments demonstrate a level of knowledge, intelligence, vision and charm which will no doubt serve you well on your path.


I sympathize with your theme that a de-industrialized country cannot be a high standard of living country. But let’s be clear about where the problem lies – it is not in the wages paid to productive workers. Japan and Germany are not low wage countries, but they have taken over industries like steel-making, automobiles, and machine tools that used to the US strengths.

No, the problem is over-regulation, pushed largely by lawyers/bureaucrats, and lawyers who prowl the boundaries of every productive industry seeking opportunities to enrich themselves by suing those who actually create wealth. Let’s not kid ourselves – such over-regulation would crush any venture like Wowie factories if they ever threatened to become successful. Meanwhile in the US, lawyers get rich while the rest of the population gets poorer – the French showed the world how that type of situation is likely to end up.

As Shakespeare said – “The first thing we do is, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Well, at least all of the ones that are contributing to the problem.


Germany, Switzerland, Japan … neither low-wage nor low regulation. It’s not the government, it’s who directs the government, the corporations, academia-- the managerial class, which is a much lower quality of intelligence, character and culture in the US than in those countries. “Rotarian grifters”, I called them in a post on another thread. The quo which needs its status taken away.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for a dictatorship of the proletariat, led by the revolutionary vanguard of blue-haired bioleninist commisars, no, I’m just noting that every sizeable corporation, in the legal sense including all institutions, is a miniature communist dictatorship, where control has passed from the owners, the original nation and its natural aristocracy into the hands of just such aparatchiks, though they often think of themselves as canny businessmen or even Ayn Rand heroes.
(See ur-glowie (OSS psyops lead, ex-Trotskyite National Review founder) James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, which says rule by managers has superceded capitalism and socialism, democracy and all other forms of government. )

WOWIE is about making real capitalism a national way of life again.


So I can own a single Wowie machine in a factory – but the transaction costs would be high between all the different owners of all the different machines which need to work in harmony to produce efficiently. That is not capitalism.

Or I can own a piece of paper which says I have a claim on that single machine.

Better – I can own a piece of paper which says I have a partial joint ownership of all the machines in the factory, and I can have a voice in choosing the team which will make all the machines run harmoniously (and profitably) together. That sounds like capitalism.

But we just (re-)invented the Joint Stock Company! Why is that kind of company today not working in the best interests of the owners?

The answer, as we all know, is financialization. Well, that plus lawyers. Perhaps it would be more effective to redesign the standard company instead of trying to create Wowies?

For example, we could require Directors of companies to have a significant part of their personal net worth invested in that company. We could require investors in the company’s stock to hold on to that stock for a given number of years, instead of day-trading them as speculators. But to take such sensible steps, we would require lawyers and politicians. Damn it!


“… the transaction costs would be high between all the different owners of all the different machines which need to work in harmony to produce efficiently. That is not capitalism.”

The transaction costs in a WOWIE will be much lower than present costs of production, which must support vast capital expenses of production lines which can make only single products, or more usually only parts of products, with these intermediate goods changing hands several times, each time adding layers of taxes, profits, overhead, shipping, storing and marketing charges. Distribution costs alone make even 1970s home production more efficient than purchasing about three quarters of household goods, according to Kevin Carson, citing Ralph Borsodi.

See outsider economist Kevin Carson’s erudite and insightful The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, (free PDF or ebook or Amazon purchase - worth supporting)
A sample:

The administrative and transaction costs of conventional commercial economy have a similar effect to that of rentier incomes: they increase the number of people the laborer must support, in addition to himself, and thereby increase the minimum scale of output required for entering the market. The social economy enables its participants to evade the overhead costs of conventional organization …
(p. 350)


Dedication iii
Contents v
Preface 1

  1. A Wrong Turn 5
    A. Preface: Mumford’s Periodization of Technological History 5
    B. The Neotechnic Phase 7
    C. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Neotechnic Revolution 12
  2. Moloch: The Sloanist Mass Production Model 25
    Introduction 25
    A. Institutional Forms to Provide Stability 35
    B. Mass Consumption and Push Distribution to Absorb Surplus 43
    C. State Action to Absorb Surplus: Imperialism 51
    D. State Action to Absorb Surplus: State Capitalism 53
    E. Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin (a Critique of Sloanism’s Defenders) 61
    F. The Pathologies of Sloanism 63
    G. Mandatory High Overhead 70
  3. Babylon is Fallen 81
    Introduction 81
    A. Resumption of the Crisis of Overaccumulation 82
    B. Resource Crises (Peak Oil) 99
    C. Fiscal Crisis of the State 104
    D. Decay of the Cultural Pseudomorph 108
    E. Failure to Counteract Limits to Capture of Value by Enclosure of the
    Digital Commons 114
    F. Networked Resistance, Netwar, and Asymmetric Warfare Against
    Corporate Management 129
    Appendix: Three Works on Abundance and Technological Unemployment 153
  4. Back to the Future 171
    A. Home Manufacture 171
    B. Relocalized Manufacturing 174
    C. New Possibilities for Flexible Manufacturing 181
    Sidebar: Marxist Objections to Non‐Capitalist Markets: The Relevance of the
    Decentralized Industrial Model 189
  5. The Small Workshop, Desktop Manufacturing, and Household
    Production 191
    A. Neighborhood and Backyard Industry 191
    B. The Desktop Revolution and Peer Production in the Immaterial Sphere 197
    C. The Expansion of the Desktop Revolution and Peer Production into the
    Physical Realm 204
  6. Open‐Source Design: Removal of Proprietary Rents from the Design
    Stage, and Modular Design 204
  7. Reduced Transaction Costs of Aggregating Capital 214
  8. Reduced Capital Outlays for Physical Production 216
    D. The Microenterprise 227
    Appendix: Case Studies in the Coordination of Networked Fabrication and
    Open Design 238
  9. Open Source Ecology/Factor e Farm 238
  10. 100kGarages 245
  11. Assessment 250
  12. Resilient Communities and Local Economies 253
    A. Local Economies as Bases of Independence and Buffers Against Economic
    Turbulence 254
    B. Historical Models of Resilient Community 258
    C. Resilience, Primary Social Units, and Libertarian Values 265
    D. LETS Systems, Barter Networks, and Community Currencies 274
    E. Community Bootstrapping 283
    F. Contemporary Ideas and Projects 293
  13. Jeff Vail’s “Hamlet Economy.” 293
  14. Global Ecovillage Network 294
  15. The Transition Town Movement 297
  16. Global Villages 298
  17. Venture Communism 299
  18. Decentralized Economic and Social Organization (DESO) 302
  19. The Triple Alliance 303
  20. The Alternative Economy as a Singularity 309
    A. Networked Production and the Bypassing of Corporate Nodes 309
    B. The Advantages of Value Creation Outside the Cash Nexus 311
    C. More Efficient Extraction of Value from Inputs 312
    D. Seeing Like a Boss 325
    E. The Implications of Reduced Physical Capital Costs 338
    F. Strong Incentives and Reduced Agency Costs 340
    G. Reduced Costs from Supporting Rentiers and Other Useless Eaters 343
    H. The Stigmergic Non‐Revolution 347
    I. The Singularity 352
    Conclusion 358
    Appendix: The Singularity in the Third World 360
    Bibliography 363
    Index 389
    About the Author 393

Edit: He discusses instances where networked small-shop production has created thriving industries: Emilia‐Romagna, Italy (cars), Shenzen (electronics), and Japan (camera lenses and bicycles). It’s hard to pull quotes, the whole book is packed with relevant examples.


From the original WOWIE paper:

Why to invest in the wide-ownership workshop industrial economy (WOWIE):

Large market
The class of goods that can be made profitably will be quite large.

High profit
Volume of goods produced is high. Goods include high value-added, income-producing items such as machine tools.

High growth rate
The factories can largely reproduce themselves.

Productive use of capital
Unlike other investments, this is direct investment in manufacturing, making real products.

Positive externalities
Widely distributed ownership of machines by individuals and small partnerships which are then leased to manufacturers distributes the rents from productive capital ownership, giving a market for the products and stimulates the economy in general as well. Ease of prototyping and producing will lead to widespread application of many new technologies and the expansion of the types of goods available.

Low risk
Productive capital in the form of flexible machines is the lowest-risk investment because it directly creates value and has the rare capability of re-purposing itself as needed to meet changing demand; other investments have more indirect and uncertain contributions to productivity.

Flexible investment structure
One can make products; buy (perhaps with machine-secured financing) a machine, then rent or lease it to manufacturers; club with others in buying shares of each others’ machines; or buy into the shop, factory or production-network levels as well. Trading/swapping machine time will also be an active new market. Issuing insurance and machine-secured loans will be profitable.

Low prices for investors on goods produced
Since one can order objects built automatically, buying materials at bulk prices and using machine time on machines one often partially or totally owns, there is no succession of profits and taxes each time the intermediate goods change hands. Prices are greatly reduced. Items for sale outside the network would be priced higher, though still highly competitive in the market.

Tax advantages
On items made for personal use, one would only pay sales tax on the raw materials. The value-added in items made for personal use would not be subject to income tax. Machine depreciation tax deductions would be big and could be renewed by exchanging machines with other owners.

Being in at the beginning of a potential new industrial revolution
This is a new way of manufacturing which takes advantage of the huge backlog of advances in technology which other manufacturers have been slow to adopt because of their prior investments in competing methods. It uses novel forms of organization with less management overhead than competitors, thus it is more competitive. It also solves the problem of distribution in an automated-production economy by turning workers into owners and capitalists.