The guys at Re-Char, a small startup that makes carbon-negative products, were faced with a problem. They wanted to ship products to Kenya, but the options available were wasteful, costly, and not nearly as efficient as simply manufacturing near to the customers. To do it, in a place with little industry or infrastructure, Re-Char designed something new—a fully functioning, off-the-grid factory inside a shipping container.

It worked. It worked so well, in fact, that Re-Char will now send the self-sufficient, open-source Shop-in-a Box anywhere in the world. It's hard to exaggerate how significantly life can change for a community once one of these shipping containers shows up.

Brent reported live from Burning Man, in a possibly fruitless attempt to convince Joe that this trip should not come out of his vacation time.

Like the gang from ReAllocate, Re-Char came to Burning Man to prove a product could work in a harsh environment. In this example, the Shop-in-a-Box performed rapid fabrication, using software to make quick designs, and then turned to a CNC plasma torch to cut the pattern out of a sheet of steel. The two-foot long demo, a Gizmodo logo, was cut out in about a minute. It was damned impressive, but what was the point?

From Re-Char's perspective, the shop was a means to make the Climate Kiln, a specialized lid and chimney that adapts a 55-gallon drum so it can make the soil amendment biochar. (Quick background: In Kenya, farmers typically burn sugarcane debris in an open field, releasing tons of carbon. A Climate Kiln controls the burn to produce biochar, a carbon-rich charcoal that, mixed into soil, lets farmers use half the fertilizer they'd normally need to make crops thrive. In fact, crops grow even better with it.)

"To make these kilns, we needed to precision-cut 18-gauge metal in western Kenya," recalled Re-Char's CTO Luke Iseman. "The two main options we had were local labor—a guy with an oxy-acetylene torch literally on the side of the highway—or full-production runs out of China, a shipping container at a time." The team realized that for $30,000, including transportation, Re-Char could create a metal cutting and joining setup that could make about 600 of lids a month. A staff of two could run the factory. "It ended up being the right way to do production, even if you only look at the financial end of it," he said.

Beyond being the most cost-effective, it was also the greenest—both from a manufacturing and shipping standpoint. "This is actually taking the factory to where the demand exists," Re-Char's CEO, Jason Aramburu, said. "You greatly reduce transportation. You shrink it down. It's possible to run it off of renewables and/or totally off-grid. It's a fully-integrated manufacturing center inside of a 20-foot shipping container."

Once the factory was set up, it became a center of innovation. Re-Char was able to continue honing the kiln design even as it was in production. The facility could make new products to meet the needs of the locals, and they could do it extremely quickly. "This kind of capacity doesn't really exist in East Africa," Aramburu said. "There are maybe two CNC plasmas in East Africa right now, and we're one of them."

Their group's ultimate goal is to become a global network of Shop-in-a-Box factories. The design is open-source, and you can build one yourself from Re-Char's list of components. Or, for $50,000, you can buy one directly from the designers. Compared to the cost of owning a full-sized factory with the same capabilities, that's a bargain. Here's what a nascent company buying a Shop-In-a-Box can currently expect to receive:

  • A CNC table, working envelope 4'x4'x6", capable of running a plasma torch or wood-cutting router.
  • Solar panels plus batteries and inverters, adequate to power the shop's computers and hand tools.
  • A generator adequate to power the shop while the welders and plasma CNC do production work.
  • Transformers, capable of scrubbing irregular grid power so it's safe for use in the shop.
  • 2 plasma torches—one for CNC use, one for hand operation. Each can sever metal up to 3/4″ and sustain cutting in any thickness metal from 1/2″ to 22-gauge.
  • Full MIG, TIG, and oxyacetylene welders, to join a wide variety of metals.
  • Electronics prototyping, focused on through-hole components and arduino microcontrollers.
  • Desktop 3D printer.
  • A desktop, aluminum-capable CNC router.
  • A wide variety of small hand and power tools—everything you'd expect in a well-outfitted garage.
  • DVR with 4 cameras, mounted to easily capture and share all details of project builds.
  • Computers and software necessary to support the shop.

Re-Char isn't just focused on sugarcane waste—with local craftsmen tinkering in the Shop-in-a-Box, the company was able to help come up with a new type of toilet. "It uses the biochar process to sanitize human waste, which you can then put on your crops," said Aramburu. "It appears to be outperforming chemical fertilizers by a significant margin." That work is being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a part of the $370 million reinvent the toilet challenge. The goal is to make a toilet that operates without running water, doesn't discharge pollutants, can capture energy or other resources, and operates for less than 5 cents a day. Using the the Shop-In-a-Box, they were able to develop a design and get it into the field immediately.

This could mark a tremendous shift in manufacturing. By decentralizing a facility, making it cheaper and greener, and helping a community evolve as it makes its own products, it's easy to imagine an independent amateur designer coming up with the next great thing. Without a shipping container factory, he or she might not have ever had the chance to try. This movement, if it catches on, would be nothing short of revolutionary. [Re-Char]

Image: Re-Char's two man team in Kenya, via Re-Char.