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.