Monday, February 27, 2012

Why am I building a Tractor?

The simple and honest answer is that my dad had one on the property that I grew up on. It was so endlessly useful that I can't imagine living on any sizable property without one. There is more to it than that though.

A reminder: This is what I'm building =)
I'm building my own tractor because I want to understand it and be able to maintain it. It's also a project that will teach me many valuable skills. I've already learned a ton about machining and CAD.

Finally, I'm interested in joining the material economy at some time in my life. So far I've earned my living by working in the knowledge economy. I think really hard and get paid to do it. I'm employed as a programmer. It's a job I love, but constrains my life quite a lot-- I work 40hr a week and have to commute to my place of work. One day, I'd like to have a bit more control-- perhaps program as a hobby.

What do I mean by 'material economy' (a green wing article)? I mean that I take ingredients and make a product. The product is a tangible thing that solves a tangible problem like hunger, need for shelter, etc. This is important because the tangible problems are the ones that force the average person to take a 9 to 5. If I can provide fixes for these root human needs, I'll have high security (someone somewhere is hungry) and be encouraging smaller scale self sufficiency. The OSE folk argue (see Village Scale here) that a material economy of about 200 people is enough for comfortable modern living locally. That sounds like somewhere I'd want to live.

So what will I produce in the material economy? I mean really, what will my tractor produce? I don't have a firm plan, but my current thoughts are to produce pelletized biomass. With a few tools (Tractor, Hay Cutter, Hammer Mill, Pelletizer) and some land, I may be able to produce a renewable, carbon neutral (or even negative!) local fuel.

This is Pellitized Wood (wikipedia)
I'm not yet clear on the economics-- how much land make how many pellets? How much labor for each acre of land? How much do pellets cost? Where would I sell them? But, I'm going to have a tractor regardless so if the economics don't work, I'll find a different plan.

Time Card & Bill of Materials updated.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Want to produce faster? Pick the right tool!

What is this?
There is a kind of knowledge that is important in any kind of work. It's the ability to pick the right tool. You might be great with a hammer, but if you're repairing a computer that skill is of little use. And so I've learned again and again. This time the lesson was in welding.

I've done all of the welding on my tractor with a tiny little TIG welder. It puts out just barely enough heat to weld 1/4" steel. It takes about a minute to make an inch of weld with it. I was using TIG on the advise of an experienced machinist (my instructor).

This week I switched to MIG at the suggestion of another fabricator. I could weld at about a foot a minute with this (much more powerful) machine. That is a speed increase of 12 times. I'm very proud to say that I finished all the welding on the Hydraulic tank (see above)! I need to do a leak test as quality control, but I may be ready to move to the next component.

Note: While MIG is faster, it's more likely to leave voids. With the TIG I could probably have made the tank leak free on the first try. With MIG I expect to have to make some (quick) patches. I took some pictures of the welds to show the difference in quality.

TIG - Smooth finish, lots of control, slow

MIG - Lots more material, some spatter, fast

Monday, February 13, 2012

Machining my first machine!

In Fall 2011 I operated a mill and a lathe for the first time. I did some simple operations and made some parts that were 'machined', but those parts weren't machines. This semester, in addition to working on my tractor, I'll be machining my first machine. If I do it right, it'll look something like this:

My instructor calls it an 'air engine', but I think of it as a 'steam engine'. Air (or steam) goes in the quick disconnect (which has a red handle). It enters the metal block on the left. In the block is a piston which rotates the cylindrical fly wheel which can be seen on the back on the machine.

It's not an efficient or complex device, but I'm really excited to make a real machine. At class this week I began machining the piston which must be very precise. I got it to .0005 inches from true. For the record, that's pretty accurate. There are a lot of operations on this machine, so I'm expecting to be hard pressed to get it done. This also means that I won't have as much time to work on my Power Cube.

In order to make more time, I'm planning on using some vacation time to spend full days in the shop. I'll update on Power Cube progress when I have made meaningful progress. Not much has happened yet this semester.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Am I building a Tractor, or is it a metaphor?

I discovered today that one of my readers didn't realize that I was actually building a tractor. So let me be clear. I am building a real tractor that does real things and produces real value. This is not a metaphor. This is a machine that does work. This is the most subversive economic action that I've ever taken. This has the chance to move me from a knowledge economy where I work 40+ hours a week, to material economy where I work 15+ hours a week.

It is no guarantee. This isn't a sure thing. It's a gamble where I risk some money, time and effort. In exchange I will get a tractor, mechanical facility, and material skills (welding, machining, practical design). I might get economic autonomy for significantly reduced effort. Is it worth it? If it all falls apart, I walk away with my 'will gets'. If it works, thenI walk away with freedom from a deeply compromised economic system.

Our economy channels money from the masses to the super-rich. These people work primarily in the knowledge economy where their money, luck, and situation allow them to reap enormous material well being for negligible material effort. Many of them have resigned from work and continue to reap the benefits of past work (stocks, bonds, investments, patents, copyrights...) Then there are the vast majority of Americans who working day in and day out to support the super-rich. They make the cloths, electronics and shoes that situate the rich so comfortably.

These people work long hard hours in the material economy and pay most of the profits of their labor to those in the knowledge economy. Doesn't it seem strange that a clever idea about what to produce and sell (knowledge) can satisfy the material needs of an individual for their entire life while backbreaking labor for 40+ years barely satisfies the material needs of a different individual from day to day?

The problem is size. America rewards individuals for finding ways to convince others to work on their behalf. It's a hierarchy and being at the top is best-- you get the most. This works in a big community when the top dog has other top dog friends. In a smaller community, the top dog sees the hardship they cause and the bottom dogs see who causes their suffering. In a big community, change is hard and slow. In a small community, hardship is a recipe for fast change.

So what about my tractor and my freedom? How do these relate? Well, small communities can't be globalized. They have to live locally. Building a small community based on locally available materials is only possible in two situations. Either the participants accept the need for a lifestyle of barely surviving, or they depend on technology to multiply their effort.

Agricultural technology like the tractor is responsible for the trend toward higher density human population that has been prevalent in all recorded human history. This is because it allowed one farmer to do the work of 10 farmers. The other 9 would-be-farmers end up doing other tasks like business and hedge fund management. Without technology like tractors, there isn't enough surplus time in a community to allow for surplus production like comfortable beds and clothing.

So, to start a small community that is free of many of the boils of American Capitalism, one starts by producing tools. These tools allow high productivity individuals and therefore a comfortable community. And so, I build a tractor.

(I'll be in the shop again for the first time in more than a month tomorrow. Expect a progress update soon.)