All of that new technology is nice, but you can’t use it if you can’t get your hands on it - and for that, you need to produce everything. This post is me looking at different production models and trying to - roughly - estimate what production looks like in-setting.
I’ll be using four examples to show production speed and cost. These are the computer chip from the example on UT89 ($200, 2.5g), the Assault Carbine from UT138 (3.5kg, $1,600) and its ammunition (7mm, 13.5g, $0.54), the wheeled ATV from UT225 (10t mass, $200,000), and the Zhongguang-class HSTV (THS: Spacecraft of the Solar System, p. 16); $387.55M, 4,172t).
We’ll be producing roughly the same dollar-volume in all of them: Those are one Zhongguang, 2,000 ATVs, 250,000 rifles, 700 million shots of ammunition, and two million chips.
There are three main sources I’m going to look at for production technology. These are Ultratech and Spaceships for 4e, and THS for 3e.
UT devotes a subchapter to manufacturing technology, with mundane production lines up to replicators. I’ll be looking at the possible ones in turn.
Factory Production Line
Specialized to create one product only, these are touted to be quite efficient. They take preprocessed parts worth 50% of the retail cost and turn them into the product.
To produce one computer chip per year takes one production line 40 hours (there’s a 20x multiplier for small items); that’s about 220 per year. Total cost is therefore $720M (and weight is about 3,600 tons). You’ll need about four years to recoup your investment.
The rifle can be produced faster; 16 hours per. That’s $14.5M in total (and 75t). This could rebuild all of the M16s ever produced in about three decades (so you’d probably want more for a big military). This one recoups its investments in less than a month. If you want to produce ammunition, you fall into the first category of small-item production1. One production line produces 37 rounds per hour and 300k per year. The required 2,100 production lines cost $116k and apparently mass less than a ton (?). Investment returned in less than six hours, so that’s strange.
Our automotive factory needs 450 lines, costs $1.8B, and recoups its investment after almost ten years. And the gigantic spacecraft? That needs $3.5 trillion of factories massing about 37 million tons (so if you want to lift it out of a gravity well, tough luck). But don’t worry: It takes less than 20,000 years to get your money back.
Well. There are some definite breakpoints in this, and the return of investment is frankly horrifying: Either you recoup your money in days, or in millennia2
The Robotic Production Line is quite similar, but you offset lower costs (20% or 30% with delivery) with 10x higher initial costs. This does increase time to return your investment somewhat, but those are already shot to hell, so why not?
The high-powered and sci-fi counterpart to the production line, these can flexibly change what they produce. They take packaged parts and produce items at half the speed of a production line. Or they can recycle scrap at one-tenth the speed. They cost 60% to the production line’s 50%.
A chip production is almost $1B (and a thousand tons), recouping your investment in fifty years. The rifle production sets you back $45M and returns your investment after 2.5 years; its ammunition $1M and 12.5 years. All big items share the 2.5 years of ROI; the car production line takes $450M to set up, the spacecraft line apparently just $100M. It’s also only 90 tons.
A robofac is similar but doesn’t need humans; and it costs the same as the normal fabricator above (which, I just realized, should be double the speed at TL10).
The other entries in UT are replicators and nanofacs, both too advanced for our setting.
At least that one will be simple: A fabricator in Spaceships takes 40% of the good’s value to produce an item; a robofac is available building twice as fast. There’s no penalty for small items, but there is one for really large ones. The fabricator costs $1,000 per dollar produced in an hour, and masses 1t per $1,000 being produced.
Statistics are really easy this time: Since I chose the amount per item to produce roughly the same cost, everything masses the same, costs the same, and has the same RoI: 45t, $45M, and about 2.5 months respectively. The robotic system masses twice that, and costs twice that, but since it produces twice as much, everything works out identically anyway.
Two things change, though: First, SS7:23 introduces the Slower Industrial Systems switch, which reduces production rate by 24 (and notes that “The production capacity for industrial systems can be too high for economic realism or game balance (especially if they are owned by player characters).”). With this, numbers change to 1,000t, $1B, and five years, which looks better.
Lastly, SS6 has a few different rules for building spacecraft: If it fits into the factory (builder SM-6), it’s fine. That would be about four million tons of factory system (SM+17; SM+15 if you take nine systems; and also $4 trillion), but could produce 10 HSTVs per hour. Yes, per hour. With slower industrial systems, it’s still ten per day. That big of a factory system won’t be available, though.
If there’s a hangar of sufficient size, instead, the factory production rate is decreased by 10x, and takes time to assemble: A single hangar big enough for the HSTV is 50,000t (which includes the spacecraft itself in the mass), and 100 people can work concurrently. It needs 2,400 hours of fully crew assembly; that’s another 100 days at round-the-clock schedules. This leaves us with 630t, $630M with normal-speed systems, and 15,000t and $15B for slower systems. Building it outside the station is also possible, tripling the crew assembly person-hours - but you can assign as many people as you want on it; an SM+11 station has up to 800 people per system available.
THS gives us two different spacecraft systems, both massing the same: The Factory (specialized) and the Robofac (general), at 10,000 spaces and 50,000 tons each. The Factory is $10M, the Robofac $1B. No rules are given for their production rate except for THS153, which says that a Robofac can “support the industrial requirements of about 10,000 people”.
There’s also Large and Small 3D printers. The large one prints $500 of goods per hour and costs $1M. Operating costs are an additional $100 per hour, and 50% of a goods’ worth to print it. Accordingly, a single 3D printer should recoup its investment costs in about ten months discounting royalties. These range from 10 to 50% on most items, and would reduce the RoI to fourteen months or make operations unprofitable. Optimized printers essentially mean a 5x increase in production speed.
Simply scaling up the Large Printer would give about $500,000 produced per hour for the Modular Robofac. Alternatively, taking the industrial requirements of 10,000 people, assuming they are at average wealth (about $24k yearly income) and spend half their income on industrial stuff, would give $120M per year ($15k per hour). That’s a difference of about 30x, and I can’t really say which is correct.
Using the Large Printer, for a moment, would give $90M for all of the products mentioned above. That’s slower than the original 4e Spaceships version.
Well, those are all very varied. I’d like to have more information on the THS production numbers (but they seem to be missing). However, in the absence of this, I’m going to go with almost Spaceships 4e’s numbers with Slower Industrial Systems.
Specifically, a specialized production line uses Spaceship’s numbers. This is producing one (or several) products in a fixed ratio. It can be reconfigured to produce other things within the same category, which costs 10% of the system’s cost. As usual, robofac systems cost twice as much. Cost to produce is 50% (20% is parts, 30% is labour and maintenance) of base price for the base factory, which robofacs reduce to 25%.
I will not include the hangar build times; these make producing spacecraft economically non-viable. Instead, assume that build time includes assembly; assembly outside of a station is 50% more expensive.
A truly “universal” fabrication system produces things at a third the speed (i.e. as for one SM smaller). It is less efficient than a production line, too: 50%-60% of base price.
Results for the Setting
Primarily, this gives a very simple system for estimating production. It does not include any adjustment for item mass (which I’d argue are subsumed into the original cost: A computer chip isn’t expensive because its parts are expensive, it’s expensive because it’s difficult to produce).
For large production runs, a production line is always going to be more efficient: My giant robofac producing 200,000 ATVs per year (at $2B investment costs; writing this off at 8% over 12 years gives about $20M per year additional cost) produces them at a cost of $50,000 (plus another $100 to pay back investment costs). Transportation costs about $250 to get a car into orbit, and a maximum of $2,000 to ship it to the next main system.
In contrast, a fabricator costs $3B and produces them at a cost of $100,000 (plus the $150 to pay back investment costs). I could transport my cars ten systems and still would come out cheaper than producing it with a fabricator ($70,350 vs $100,150). This suggests the fabricator competes not on price but on (a) fast availability, (b) flexibility and costumer-customization (one- or few-item production runs), and (c) on redundancy (especially important for colonies, military operations, and spacecraft). There’s also no real risk that whatever you’re producing suddenly becomes less popular - you can just produce something else.