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CNC machining, sensor gardening from Oakland cargo container

Luke Iseman is a creator: he’s invented automated gardening assistants, built a bike taxi company and designed kilns for Kenyan farmers. Like crafters of past centuries, he makes his own prototypes, but like fellow manufacturers in the so-called New Industrial Revolution, his main tools are a computer and a CNC machine.

New Industrial Revolution at American Steel

Located in the former American Steel warehouse in Oakland, CA alongside other artisans (it’s now American Steel Studios where much of the Burning Man art is created), his workshop is a shipping container. He calls it Shop-in-a-Box and complete with CNC machine (4’x4′ plasma CNC) it’s a replica of another container deployed in Bungoma, Kenya. The two off-grid capable, open-source container factories currently produce biochar kilns for Re:char, the company Iseman runs with his friend Jason Aramburu (the kilns allow farmers to turn farm waste into cooking fuel and a carbon-negative soil amendment).

Shipping container factory

Shop-in-a-box is off-grid capable, important for a place like Bungoma with a spotty power source and the larger vision is to create a global network of “shop-in-a-box factories operating as an API for hardware: when one new product, Instructable, or other project has been built and documented in a shop-in-a-box, all other shop-in-a-box factories are able to quickly create and improve upon the product. We will deploy hardware like software: a new version of a product is deployed via instantaneous changes to the CAD models, not new products shipped from around the world.”

Rethinking how food arrives in our kitchen

Next door to his Oakland Shop-in-a-box, Iseman has built out another shipping container, this one is dedicated to rethinking how food arrives in our kitchen. “So right now you have these 2 crazy magic boxes in your kitchen. One costs a couple hundred bucks and heats food up, one costs a couple hundred bucks and keeps food cold. There’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t have third magic box that produces with no work from you all of your fresh fruits and then another one that does all of your fresh vegetables. The science is there, we just need to build it.”

Plug and play gardening

With Iseman’s first foray into smarter gardening, he invented the Garduino, an Arduino-based automated garden controller. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, he created a more user-friendly plug-and-play gardener called Growerbot. It’s both automated (with light, humidity and temperature sensors, WiFi connectivity and relays to run pumps and grow lights) and social (he calls it the “world’s first social gardening assistant”). Taking cues from Farmville, he hopes to gamify gardening and encourage users to share data, “letting us gain ‘fruitful’ discoveries about how to best grow different plants”.

He’s also contributed to another social gardening tool, Soil IQ (founded with Aramburu) that uses a smartphone app and hardware soil probe to help gardeners and small farmers. By monitoring and streaming info on soil nutrient content, pH, temperature, moisture and light data, “the platform generates custom tailored recommendations to growers to optimize seed selection, fertilization, watering and reduce waste… Users receive SMS or twitter-based alerts when their plants need attention, and can buy/sell/trade their crops (or share data) with their friends and neighbors.”

Embrace failure

Iseman’s shipping container is also filled with less-specific gardening experiments. On the day we visited, he showed us an aeroponics solution designed by 14 years olds, a hydroponic setup piggybacking off some novel biochar research, pvc pipe gardens designed to take advantage of wall space and a biochar/urine mix that he deemed a sure failure.

“You can’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough, you don’t need every tool before you start experimenting with it. So I think the biggest thing needs to be that, totally do what I and everyone else does and geek out about all the details, but experiment and share it.”

* We also have a video on on Iseman’s cargo container garden and his CNC workshop in a box.