An Insightful, Informative TED Talk About the Future of Manufacturing
In this TED talk, “Why We Need To Move Manufacturing Off-Planet” by James Orsulak, he talks about how, because all of our manufacturing currently takes place on Earth, all its harmful byproducts and wasteful processes end up destroying the planet.
Taking a slightly controversial position, Orsulak argues that the fix is to move manufacturing operations off-planet, using automated labor to mine resources and perform all those ecosystem-destabilizing processes in the void of space.
“If we do this, we reverse the human supply chain,” he says. “Imagine if you walked outside one day and there were no factories, power plants, refineries or oil rigs. We’ve now zoned the earth for residential access only.”
A summary of the ideas presented:
All the Resources We Use Come From the Same Place
We live on Earth, and all of the resources that we have ever used as a civilization — energy, fuels, minerals, construction materials, metals, etc. — have come from the same place: Earth. This poses a problem, because when we study biological history, we very quickly see that any time there’s a dominant species in a finite ecosystem, consuming a limited amount of resources, that species will collapse.
We don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like, we don’t know exactly what the impact is going to be, but the worst case scenario is the end of the human race. The problem is that we’re running out of room, we’re running out of resources, and now we’re running out of time.
What If There Was a Way We Could Make Our Ecosystem Bigger?
Orsulak has an idea. If we expand our view and look into space, we see all the resources that hold value here at home — energy, fuels, metals, water, etc. — are available in nearly infinite quantities in our solar system. What if there’s a way we could use those resources to prevent the collapse of our civilization?
While it sounds like science fiction, he argues that we can use the resources of space to save our planet — and it involves robots. For the very first time in history, we’ve amassed the technological toolkit that we need to dispatch autonomous robotic explorers out into the solar system to find and access these resources and put them to work.
It All Depends On Water, Robots and People
Orsulak goes on to say that water is everywhere in space, which is good, because along with robots, people are going to be working out in space. But water in space is also fuel. By passing water through an electrical field, we can produce liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen — high-efficiency rocket propellant. We can then set up fuel depots in the solar system, and for the first time we’ll have access to this new resource base because we’re not trying to launch all our fuel from Earth. And now that we have access, we can turn our sights to the next step: construction.
What Should We Build In Space?
We already have the International Space Station, a $100 billion structure created using the resources from Earth. Orsulak proposes that if we use the resources of space, we can create massive, kilometer-scale solar farms in space that will capture the energy of the sun, that shines in space 24 hours a day, and beam that energy back to Earth. The technology to do this exists today, but it’s simply too expensive when we try to use the resources of Earth. But if we use the resources in space, we can create planetary-scale macrogrids.
While commercial space stations can serve as hotels for adventurous tourists, the primary function of these facilities will be manufacturing.
The Role of Manufacturing In the Future
Manufacturing is resource consumption, and right now all of that’s done on Earth. But Orsulak proposes that if we gather and harvest all of our raw materials and resources from deep space and import them to an orbital manufacturing ring around the planet, we can return only the finished products to the surface.
This would reverse the human supply chain and push all of our mining and manufacturing outside the atmosphere. The result? We’ve now zoned the Earth for residential access only. There would be no factories, no power plants, no refineries, no oil rigs, no pipelines, and no additional pollution. He argues that we’d have more space here on Earth and more room for the population, because we’re not trying to live on top of our consumable resource base.
Who Is James Orsulak?
James Orsulak serves as the Director of Business Development at Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company that has embarked on the world’s first commercial deep space exploration.
The company focuses on technologies such as rocket propellant, water for life support functions, and construction materials sourced from asteroids.
Previously, James spent a decade developing industrial-scale fueling stations on Earth.
What Do You Think?
Orsulak concludes that the resources of space are the solutions to our greatest problems. What do you think this means for the future of manufacturing?