I've built 2 off-grid, digital, open-source factories out of 20' shipping containers, and I want to help others build their own.

Shop-In-A-Box #001 operates in Bungoma, Kenya; #002 lives at American Steel in Oakland, CA. #002 travels: it's been to Maker Faire (while under construction), The Gates Foundation Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, and Burning Man in the last year. Here's an article Gizmodo did on this project; we cut their logo out of 18-gauge mild steel while on the playa.

Each factory cost ~$30,000 in total, including power generation and tooling. This means that for around the price of a nicer new car, you can make many aspects of a car: sub-millimeter-precision cuts through 3/4" metal, welding steel up to 1" thick / aluminum up to 3/8", a wide variety of metalworking / woodworking tools, and a lot more.

Off-Grid: we stabilize grid power when it's available. If it's not, solar panels power prototyping needs (computer, lights, fans) and a generator powers actual production work (compressor, plasma, CNC, etc.)

Digital: the heart of Shop-In-A-Box is a 4' x 4' plasma CNC cutter. This lets us easily roll out design changes between #001 in Bungoma, Kenya and #002 in Oakland, California.

Open Source: the design of the factory is open source (CC-BY-SA, specifically), and we're utilizing open tools wherever practical. I want to get to where we have open-source versions of every single tool in the shop, but I'll need *a lot* of help from y'all to get there.

Factory: this works as a tinkerer's paradise, but it's also meant to cost-effectively produce meaningful quantities of real products. Our factory in Kenya can produce ~600 of our biochar kilns (cut out of 18ga mild steel) in a month. Our kilns in Kenya retail for $45; with ~$5 per kiln going towards recouping capital expenditures on the factory, we achieve payback with less than a year of at-capacity production. Our U.S. factory was used to complete most elements of 2 Kickstarter campaigns in the last year: Black Revolution, our carbon-negative soil, and growerbot, our social gardening assistant.


My friend Jason started re:char, a company about biochar, and he wanted a way to get his charcoal-making kilns to farmers in Western Kenya. He didn't want to buy a 10,000-unit run of one design and send a container full of them from China to Kenya, wasn't happy with the aesthetic quality / consistency of 'juakali' (side-of-the-road blacksmiths) in Kenya, and noticed that I had a shipping container in my yard while also spending lots of my time welding together chunks of metal into pedicabs. He asked me if we might be able to send a shipping container full of tools to Kenya and have it turn into a shop.

A hectic 2 weeks later, we unloaded a uhaul of tools into a container in Houston.

Flash forward 2 months, skim over many customs headaches, and Shop-In-A-Box #001 started production in Western Kenya.

More broadly, lean and localized production matters because too many factories are large, stinking, expensive heaps of energy and land usage in countries with lax labor laws and minimal environmental standards.

Most shipping containers see a sad life moving consumer goods from China to here and metal scrap on the return trip. 

By combining the 2, we can get a saner and I dare say sexier way of making things.

Step 1: Safety

This is not another laser-cut plywood project: you're dealing with heavy, industrial equipment here. In the course of developing these containers, I have personally:
  1. Hit myself in the head with a piece of telespar that I was using as an extended lever on a farm jack.
  2. Gotten side-swiped by a container truck while rushing to get to Shop-In-A-Box (from lack of driving safety, not shop practices).
  3. Cut a tendon, ligament(s?), and knuckle in my left hand through hasty use of a cordless circular saw.
  4. Severed a 220-volt line by dropping a piece of sheet metal off of the roof of a container.
  5. Snapped a support chain while craning a container onto a truck with improper chain positioning.
  6. Created a fake-murder-scene by setting the container on an unopened gallon of red paint.
  7. Fires: many causes, numerous. Worst/best was a kamikaze generator.
Working with industrial-scale digital fabrication is literally worldchanging: you have an unparalleled ability to shape the real world around you. Take your time, think things through, and try not to unintentionally reshape your body in the process.
<p>Plazma Solutions provides cnc plasma gas cutting machine services &amp; suppliers of metals. We use high end technology for plasma cutting in our workshop.</p><p>http://plazmasolutions.com/cnc-plasma-gas-cutting-machine-services-and-suppliers</p>
<p>Plazma Solutions provides cnc plasma gas cutting machine services &amp; suppliers of metals. We use high end technology for plasma cutting in our workshop.</p><p>http://plazmasolutions.com/cnc-plasma-gas-cutting-machine-services-and-suppliers</p>
<p>Plazma Solutions provides cnc plasma gas cutting machine services &amp; suppliers of metals. We use high end technology for plasma cutting in our workshop.</p><p>http://plazmasolutions.com/cnc-plasma-gas-cutting-machine-services-and-suppliers</p>
<p>Plazma Solutions provides cnc plasma gas cutting machine services &amp; suppliers of metals. We use high end technology for plasma cutting in our workshop.</p><p>http://plazmasolutions.com/cnc-plasma-gas-cutting-machine-services-and-suppliers</p>
I have a 40' container to build my workshop in. still no real electric just extension cords, no real lights yet either. On a high note it only cost $7000.
I love the shop in a box idea. I look forward to seeing more!!!! B
Nice work
When I finally get the cash saved to buy my land,these are what Im going to use for my home,with some work of course.When I get finished,it will be hard to tell that they were once shipping containers.
Very nice! We use a container for a workshop, too.
A few pics...
Hello.Great idea and realization of it. <br> Have you thought about producing biogas to run your generator,and anything else that gas is good for ?
Heh. Good look with your anthromophic data in Kenya. They have the Maasai, the tallest people in the world and IIRC even some small number of Pygmy peoples.
Model thrice, cut once is good advice but I would modify it to &quot;Model on computer once, cardboard once, wood/plastic once, cut in steel.&quot; That is especially true with a tight space, mobile project.<br> <br> No matter how good our computer modeling tools, nothing beats physical model. It is easy to have something offset or protruding by 1/2&quot;/1cm be invisible in the model but be blocking in use.<br> <br> I once built a workbench with a foot locking/leveling bolt sticking out sideways maybe an inch. It look okay in the cad as I had placed it above the toe kick so my foot would slide under it and it was shorter than the toe kick. &nbsp;However, depending on what boots I wore, the bolt hit the top of my foot on the upper arch just where it rises to join the ankle. It made the workbench almost unusable because every few minutes I would bang into that bolt.&nbsp;<br> <br> You don't want to get out into the back beyond and find you can't use a tool because another tool or structural component is poking you in the back.&nbsp;
Word of advice from my cowboy/barnstoming-pilot/roughneck grandfather who had done and see it all: <em><strong>&quot;The powerful the tool, the easier it is to cut your own head off with it.&quot;</strong></em><br> <br> This type of small mobile factory might be a way around the endemic corruption in the 3rd world that strangles off most technical development. People can't import components and tools because corrupt officials place staggeringly high du jure and de facto tariffs on imported items. They like tariffs because shipping ports and airports are choke points in the distribution system they can easily control.&nbsp;<br> <br> A blogmate of mine worked with a charity shipping prefab building panels to disaster areas. Following the Haiti earthquake they tried to send some but corrupt officials levied a 200% tariff on the panels! &nbsp;<br> <br> The problem is so bad in some places that the people revert to techniques like hand filing matching bolts and nuts (each pair hand made and uniquely mated to each other.) It's more cost effective to have a guy stand there with a file all day essentially whittling steel and producing a noninterchangeable nut and bolt pair than it is to try and import a box of manufactured interchangeable nuts and bolts we'd by $10 for down at the hardware store.&nbsp;<br> <br> With the DIY factory, you might have to pay through the nose to get the factory in the country but once you did, you could manufacture essential products at reasonable prices. Considering how many people in the 3rd world die owing to a lack of basic technological infrastructure, you could save a lot of lives.&nbsp;
Are there any problems regarding condensation?
Hey Luke - what an amazing project! Congratulations on maximizing your useful work and storage spaces. A 40 ft container feels really big. Very inspiring and you're a good teacher.
1,000kWh+ battery <br>That would probably take one more container just for the batteries :D <br>
Very good job, I'm pretty impress by all you have done. Can you tell me why you do not use two containers side by side with the CNC in the middle to have almost 8' of space ? <br>Thank you for sharing ! <br>
This is great! I love what you have done here (specifically, providing the opportunity for a third-world locality to help build themselves up.) This looks like it would fit in perfectly with a missionary approach based on the Book of James in the Bible (don't say to a hungry man, &quot;God loves you&quot; and ignore his physical needs, but rather help him with food (clothing, charcoal making, etc.) and then tell him &quot;God loves you.&quot; <br> <br>Have you had any troubles with finding local workers with the talent to run the equipment? Also, are the raw materials available, in Kenya, for your production runs? Is it easy to get hold of those materials? How about training/coordination at the Kenyan end of things? Did you already have local contacts with whom you worked, or what? <br> <br>Perhaps this would be better moved to a Private Message (or direct email) conversation. I would like to discuss this with you further.
Wow... This is epic!! <br>Looks like you had more than a container's load of fun.. :D <br> <br>Question: would it be possible to make windows in a way that the container still meets the shipping codes/requirements? <br> <br>Thanks for sharing and inspiring !!
Walking a container would first require that we have an appropriate walking song. Probably something country/western, since containers are associated with trucks, but with a little Polynesian flavor to honor the inspiration, and of course, it would need a &quot;Yo-heave-ho&quot; beat :-)
Great read! Really interesting story and details.
Fun stuff, I'm tempted to vote for this just because of the entertainment factor xD
Great documentation, and a perfect community building project even in developed nations. I look forward to following the evolution of Shop In A Box. Thanks!
This is great stuff! My own particular interest is homebuilt aircraft, but I am very interested in this sort of small, lean, low-cost, off-the-grid manufacturing to reduce costs. I am also a container architechure fan. I would love to learn more about the specifics of your DIY factory design--footing and solar electric specs, etc. By the way, I happen to be living in Nairobi at the moment, so shoot me a message next time you're in town. Cheers, Matthew
This is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing all of these with us.

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Bio: bicycles, gardening, and other important stuff
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