Auto-factories - sometimes known in the vernacular as 'autofacs,' or more simply as 'the printers' - are fully automated factory spaces. These generally consist of arrays of 3D printers, lathes, furnaces, robotic manipulators, conveyors, and quality control sensors packed together to fabricate a general, pre-specified range of goods. Auto-factories as a technology can theoretically produce products of any level of complexity desired if properly programmed and supplied with raw materials to do so, especially when equipped with a sufficiently adaptable AI or even HLAI. Specialized products may require specialized equipment (i.e. graphene circuit printers), unique protections (i.e. chemical fire suppression systems), or unusual materials (i.e. radioactive isotopes), each of which add the the size, mass, and complexity of the machinery required to produce them. Economies of scale also come to into play. Because of these factors, no single auto-factory is truly 'univeral' in its capabilities, with the result that highly complex products require assemblages of several different auto-factory submodules to complete.
While the Cobalt Protectorate is by no means a post-scarcity society, their heavy implementation of automation has somewhat democratized the means of production. Auto-factories of around the size of a general purpose module or smaller are relatively inexpensive in the current era, meaning that, if someone has regular need of a particular kind of product, they might very well chose to purchase (or crowdfund) their own auto-factory just to produce that product. For example, a farm owner who grows a particular kind of crop can buy or rent a mobile auto-factory to cook, blend, can, and label that crop for shipping to local supermarkets. The invention of auto-factories has also caused a change in the market where large manufacturing firms now tend to carry out the full end-to-end production of a product rather than sourcing raw materials from middle men, reducing the arbitrage cost of goods too complex for 'mom-and-pop' auto-factories to manage. For example, Applied Synthetics, a Vbyifabid Family-Flock holding, doesn't just do cybernetics and artificial intelligence work; they also have hands in the mining of rare earth metals (for electrodes and magnets) and hydrocarbon deposits (for plastics and graphene-based nanocircuitry), with component production occuring close to the points of extraction before the products are shipped - already whole - to their outlets in major cities. For the Protectorate, where the economy is based on raw materials and taxes are assessed at the point of extraction, this has necessitated an increase in both remote sensing technologies and bureaucratic oversight to make sure these firms are not dodging their taxes by concealing where their raw materials are coming from. Auto-factories operating in chemistry, biology, and radiology-adjacent fields have a unique market potential, but this is also why they are closely monitored by local, clan, and national authorities. These facilities are typically zoned far from inhabited places and must meet certain standards of safety and security to be activated or moved. Aside from their immedate danger in the event of chain reactions, the owners of these auto-factories must also be carefully vetted to weed out the occasional sociopath looking to create weapons of mass destruction. The additional cost and complexity of these auto-factories, coupled with the onerous 'red tape' surrounding their use, makes them the least common type of auto-factories despite their utility.
Auto-factory design constitutes its own specialization within the mechanical engineering, industrial engineering, chemical engineering, and cybernetics fields. The actual production of auto-factories is, in turn, largely delegated to pre-existing auto-factories operating in tandem with human and HLAI foremen with the required training and licensure.
Access & Availability
Auto-factories are most common in spacefaring contexts, were the combination of resource abundance, available organic labor, and nepotism found in terrestrial societies are not as present.
One example of a complex auto-factory package is the machinery complement of the ESCI Revelation. As a colony ship, the Revelation is expected to manufacture all of its necessities - pharmaceuticals, drones, medical devices, and even new starships, to name just a few - en route or in the destination system. The Revelation's many auto-factory subunits are, for the most part, packaged in individual General Purpose Modules arranged throughout the ship. In the Revelation's docking array, where not all ship components can be assembled within the volume constraints of a GPM, many auto-factory components (primarily lathes and assembly arms) are instead arranged on mobile track mounts which span the upper (medial) surfaces of the bay. While some raw materials have been brought along for emergency use in auto-factories, the intent of the ESCI mission planners was that most raw materials would be collected in the Falconer's Eye System by the Revelation's many drones and its pair of manned star cruisers. Within the Sphere Section, where most of the population lives, autofac GPMs are owned by individual civilian clan members, Cobalt Knights contractors, and production consortiums (such as White Mountain Laboratories) and are used to produce all sorts of necessary consumer goods. These interior auto-factories are fed primarily with agricultural products and recycled waste from the ship's several SCWO digesters, though some limited stores of raw materials brought from Evermorn and its environs may be included for goods like electronics. For less complex items, however, the raw materials may instead be supplied directly to end-users for use in residential 3D printers; this delegation of resources, while not as profitable for the owners of the auto-factories in the immmediate term, does free up factory cycles for more complex and important projects.