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The Machines That Make Up Our Industrial Base

A Guide to Dummies About Essential Machines Used in Manufacturing

I thinking about building self sustained colonies on other planets you don’t get away with trying to understand what are actually the essential components of our modern industrial base?

The easiest way I decided to try to decipher and understand that is by starting with Marcin Jakubowski’s Civilization Starter Kit. It tries to pair down to a minimum in the simplest way the machines, tools and resources we need for a modern industrial society, and how these things depend on each other.

The problem reading this is that as a computer scientists, I have little practical understanding and knowledge of what all these machines are or why we need them.

So lets look at what I’ve found. I’ll try to keep the explanations simple and assume you will just lookup the details on wikipedia or something similar. To me the important thing is to get across the central idea of what these machines are for and what sort of context they fit into.

A lot of these machines are for metal working. Wiki has a good overview of the different things one does when working metal.

  • Milling. Cutting off metal such as with a CNC or router.
  • Turning. Kind of the same thing but cutting off metal while a piece is spinning like on a lathe.
  • Threading
  • Grinding
  • Filing

We need some way in our new space civilization of melting metal, so we can e.g. cast it into shapes. The simplest way of doing this seems to be through an Induction Furnace. The principle is very simple. You put a metal coil around a crucible.

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Crucible made of carbon. These are containers made to hold melted metals and must thus be made of materials withstanding high temperatures.

That is basically the “bucket” you put the metal you want to melt in which needs to withstand a lot of heat.

Around the crucible, you put the coils of an induction heater. These are really simply. If you make a high voltage current alternate rapidly through a coil you will induce an electric current in the metal inside the coil.

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High rapidly alternating current causes any metal piece between the coils to be heated up and eventually melt.

That electric current will heat up the metal just as the metal in a light bulb gets heated up when current runs through it. I am assuming here that this happens because of the electrical resistance in the metal is much higher than the electrical resistance in the copper coil we use. Anyway the beauty of this is that the heated metal never actually have to touch the part that is heating it.

As far as I can gather a Forge Press is essentially the modern version of what the medieval black smith did with his hammer and anvil. Basically you are using it to reshape metal while it is hot or cold. It is an alternative to casting or machining a metal part. So why forge rather than cast or machine? It seems to be used when you need stronger parts. I assume that is why swords e.g. were forged.

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Forge press. Squeeze stuff in between the gap really hard. Lets you deform metal. You can use dies to control what shapes metal is deformed into.

Attach a drill either electrical or pneumatic to a press. Why not just drill holes with a standalone drill? The point of a drill press is that you can lock a piece you want to drill holes into in place and you can move the drill bit down vertically accurately.

In my experience drilling holes accurately by hand is really hard. A drill press helps you get accurate.

Making holes is obviously useful for all sort of stuff. If you want to assemble any part you typically make holes to parts can be held together by screws.

Wiki says an Ironworker is a class of machines that can shear, notch, and punch holes in steel plate. Basically this is an alternative to drilling holes or sawing off metal plates. Or if you want to get fancy an alternative to laser cutting or waterjet cutting.

Here is a configuration for punching holes.

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Holes which are punched, not drilled. The metal breaks apart/fractures due to sharing forces making the hole.

And here one for shearing metal plates.

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Shearing forces causes the metal plate do be cut in two.

So why don’t we always use a saw and drill? This Ironworker requires massive amounts of force to work. From this page it seems as if punching and shearing is used when you deal with thin metal sheets because it is a lot faster and doesn’t waste material.

Sawing and drilling is for thicker metal pieces.

You stick a metal rod, sheet or rube between some thick metal bars/rolls and crank it to create bends or curves on the metal.

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The configuration of the rolls can be adjusted to affect the radius of the metal which gets curved.

You could use this for a whole bunch: create a bend on tubes to go around a corner, create a steering wheel, bend plates to create a tank etc.

This has some similarities to plastic extruders and metal rollers. I could not find any DIY projects on this. This is all about making rods and wires of metal. Usually the way it is done is by heating metal bars and then squeezing them between several rolls at very high pressure. This reshapes the metal to a desired shape. They use this both for making wires, rods and metal plates.

This is a very useful thing to have because it allows you to make the basic building components of any larger structure as well as it being possible to feed these into a lathe for making round components such as bearings, axel collars or any kind of roundish metal piece. It is also needed to make electric wires as well as metal wires for tying together things.

One problem I see with setting up equipment like this on another planet is that it seems to require a massive and heavy structure because such high pressures has to be handled.

I am used to calling everything plastic, but as far as I understand the correct terminology is that you don’t call it plastic when it hasn’t gotten its final shape. Then you just call it resin. What comes out of an industrial process polymerizing some hydrocarbon is a resin, which is basically powder or pellets.

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A semi-advance DIY plastic extruder. Resin pellets go into the hopper. The motor drives a screw auger which push the pellets with force into the part of the barrel with the heating element. The heat turns the pellets into a continous paste/thread getting sequeezed out. This will be hot so it is useful to cool it down with e.g. air cooling as shown here. Big industrial extruders will have a more complicated setup with rollers, water cooling etc.

I picked the picture above from a DIY project for extruding plastic filament for 3D printers yourself. It is easier to see what is going on in these DIY projects. Basically you throw resin pellets into the hopper. A motor attached to a screw push these pellets forward into a heating element where they melt and fuse, then they get pushed out through the extrusion nozzle. The nozzle decides the shape. E.g. depending on the nozzle you can make a hollow tube, sheet or rod.

This machine is important in space colonies, because if you want to grow stuff and don’t have soil then you need to build a hydroponics system. That means you need a bunch of plastic tubes in which water runs through. That is what this guy makes.

There are lots of these DIY filament extruders online if you google. So that gives you a sense of how extruders work in general and what sort of parts are needed to make them. Here is another cool one:

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Plastic filament extruder.

A lathe is for milling round parts. That is we take something cylinder shaped, rotate it and use some sharp metal to cut off parts of the cylinder while it rotates.

I like using pictures of DIY version because it makes it easier to see what is going on. Here is a lathe you can build using 3D printed parts.

See the part in the middle with the wheel you can crank? You crank that to push the cutting part into the cylinder you a rotating at high speed.

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A DIY lathe made mostly from 3D printed parts.

Below you can see how it has been moved close, to cut into the grey cylinder.

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Here is another cool DIY lathe made of wood.

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Here is an example of the kind of parts you make using a lathe.

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Examples of parts which can be made in a lathe.

If you want to make engine parts a lathe would be very important to have as you need it when making parts for anything rotating. For making cylinders of an internal combustion engine, steam engine, or sterling engine etc.

A CNC router has a lot of similarities with a 3D printer or plotter. You basically got a XYZ or XY robot arm which is controlled by a computer. The difference is that you don’t move a pen around or deposit melted plastic droplets. Instead you are moving around a drill bit.

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This isn’t a normal drill bit however, because it is not made for making holes. You use a router drill bit, which is made to allow you to cut into wood, metal or plastic sideways. That way you can cut arbitrary paths through a material.

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Router drill bits. These are not for creating holes but for cutting material laterally, rather than vertically.

If you can move with accuracy in the Z direction as well, then you can basically use it to sculpt a part. So unlike 3D printing, you remove material rather than adding it.

We do we need a CNC router? Why not use a 3D printer say? With 3D printers we are much more limited to the kind of materials we may use. With a CNC router we have much greater choice in materials.

This is a tool which uses electric current to create plasma which cuts through any material which conducts electricity such as steel and aluminum. Of course we could use some sort of saw or grinder for that as well, but this is often faster and more flexible. If you want to cut in patterns that is hard to do with a grinder or saw.

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Example of a plasma cutter attached to a CNC router.

What is neat about this flexibility is that you can easily fit a plasma cutter on a CNC router and let the plasma cutter be computer controlled instead of the drill bit. This allows us to automate the cutting of complex shapes.


There are a bunch of tools and machines I did not cover and that would either be because I consider them so widely known or that I simply don’t know about them or they are not essential in building some industrial base, because their function can be performed by some other listed tool.

This was focused on metal working, but I would like to cover plastics and chemical processing at some later time.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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