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For a high school engineering class - feasibility of putting together a Lifetrac
  • Hello,

    I am a 12th grade student representing an engineering class at a high school in Los Angeles. My class has been inspired by the mission and apparent practicability of Open Source Ecology. For a final project- to be completed by August 2012- we would like to build a LifeTrac. Our class is led by a teacher with a B.S. in engineering from Caltech, however, no one among us has a welding license and we do not have a machine shop at our high school.

    From the documentation I have gone through, and provided we raise the money necessary to buy materials, it seems like it would be possible to outsource the welding a metal drilling to machine shops, however, we recognize that we should find a place sympathetic to our cause. Do you all have ideas on how to go about this?

    When complete, we would like to donate the LifeTrac to a worthy recipient (we are thinking about organic farms that host WWOOFers but there may be more worthy recipients). Of course with donation liability is a large issue, and one that I see is a topic of active discussion in the forums at this point.

    My question is essentially do any of you have suggestions or recommendations about this plan before we start alienating parts suppliers and machine shops with too many questions. Heavy machinery is something that none of us have familiarity with, but it is something that we all want to become familiar with. In short, the motivation is here, and we will happily act on any advice that the community has.


    Thanks guys,

    Hayden and Daniel
  • 23 Comments sorted by
  • i really like the idea, i don't know about technical feasibility for you or how the american school system works but my schools 'project' in the 6th form (yr11+12) workshop was building a hovercraft - the teacher did get quiet involved with some of the more technical issues but i think the students did most of it and i remember it wizzing around the school field so they managed to make it work....  
    I just wanted to share an organizational idea with you, maybe it'd make sense to speak to some local groups; if you're in cali then seems really interesting or alternatively (which i found in a list about cali but appears to have land in Oregon?) or in sanfran - talk to them about their projects and if a lifetrac would be something they'd get good use out of; if one of them is positive towards the idea not only will you be able to know ahead of time you have a good home for your project but it'll hopefully make your fundraising mission somewhat simpler if you can point to the good cause which will ultimate benefit.  I feel these would be great places to approach because they're focused on community and education, this means not only would they make great use of the tools you'd be providing them but also no doubt would spread the word and help educate people about the gvcs and open source design principles.  
    There's always the possibility of an added bonus in that the good relations between your class and the project might even incline them to 'return the favour' by inviting your school on some form of field trip or learning event - i dare say most the reservations which members of the faculty or administration may have over the project would be silenced if they see theres more than one benefit to the school. 
    but yeah i'd consider the practical aspects of the project first, print out the Bill Of Materials and the fabrication diagrams, tool requirements and etc then make a chart containing the list of metal you'd need to buy and what stages you'd need to move it through to get to the finalised component - find some local suppliers and prices for fabrication so that you've broken all the tasks down into an easy to understand table containing the vague cost, time and complexity of making each part - once you've got a clear idea of what'll be involved it'll be much easier to decide if it's a project the class wants to take on.  
    Good luck and best regards;
  • We have found a sympathetic welder / machinist in our area who has recommended us several wholesalers and will assist us in a big way with assembly. In short, we now know that with the right cause- like you said, necessary for raising funds- we should be able to get this thing off the ground (fundraising-wise). I am in the process of contacting the organizations mentioned. Thank you!
  • Vote Up0Vote Down
    January 2012
    I think this is a great project, dhtractormfgr.  It will teach you and your classmates many different skills.  I would encourage you to explore the underlying philosophy behind OSE as part of the project as well.  While a LifeTrac would be of great help to a WOOF organization, it plays a very important role in OSE's vision of a Resource Based Economy.  Some suggestions concerning building a LifeTrac follow.

    Hole drilling and welding are the biggest part of building the LifeTrac, though some grinding will be needed as well.  I suspect that cost will be the biggest hurdle you need to overcome.  The materials for the tractor are very substantial:  four inch tubular steel is not cheap.  Provided you get past the cost, assembling the frame will be straightforward.  There is a new wheel mount design being worked out currently that should be considered by your class. It's a bit more complicated than the older design, but solves several problems.

    The LifeTrac typically uses linked treads made by welding bent pieces of rebar to chains.  These are looped over the tires to improve traction.  The treads, however, are not required.  You might consider them optional.

    Finally, there is the question of power.  The LifeTrac uses one or two PowerCubes that power a hydraulic pump that in turn provides power to the wheels (via hydraulic motors) and to the attachments (bucket loader, backhoe, etc.).  In my opinion, the PowerCube is a more difficult project than the tractor itself.  The welding is more complicated and less forgiving.  Still, with access to a professional welder willing to help, it could be done.  The motor is the most expensive part of the PowerCube.  Fortunately, you won't be building the motor - just buy one.  It might be possible to locate a used one, also.

    - Mark

    PS.  You might suggest to your teacher the possibility of bringing in a guest lecturer from OSE to explore what it's all about.  I'd even consider coming myself if the travel expenses could be subsidized.  If interested, have him GMail me at markjnorton.

  • I think you could get some free publicity from local newspapers and TV stations with this type of project (especially when tied to another non-profit where the LifeTrac will be donated).  If you set up a simple website explaining the type of help you need (money donations, materials, welding, grinding, etc) you may be able to get help from the community.  Have llinks from your website to OSE and the non-profit you plan to give the LifeTrac to.

    Sounds like you already have help from a welder - which I would guess would be your biggest need.

    You could also plan a "show and tell" event for when the LifeTrac is complete.  Invite all those who helped with donations or supplies to come and see the tractor working.  Invite the papers and tv stations to this event too.

    Sounds like a great way to introduce your community to OSE and learn some handy skills.  Good luck - I'm rooting for you.
  • Thanks for all of the responses everyone. We are moving ahead. We found suitable and eager recipients for the tractor in the South Central Farmers ( and organization, which, after its urban farm was famously bulldozed, moved to a plot in Bakersfield, CA. Apparently, they had already been on the Open Source Ecology website, so they were informed as to its merits and were already excited about open source agriculture. So, off to build a website for fundraising  purposes this weekend!

    P.S. - Mark We, and are teacher, are very excited about the prospect of and OSE representative coming out to visit our class and/or helping us pitch the idea to the general assembly at our school. We will contact you about the details shortly.

  • Work is progressing. We gave an introductory presentation to our school at an assembly yesterday, which you can check for at our website.
    In the four hours of school after the presentation yesterday, we accumulated ~$1000 in pledges and donations. In order to enhance the community driven nature of this, we are recruiting aspiring engineers and fundraisers at a local public school.

  • Cool, I'm working on the fabrication instructions for the tractor. If you want to start your project before I officially publish the instructions, just ask and I'll send you whatever I have.
  • Hello everyone,

    We have been making strides in project. I won't go into great detail here as all of the updates are available at
    I write, though, to ask whether any authorities on Open Source Ecology live in or will be in the Los Angeles area on the night of March 17. A Memoir and Social Change Course at our school has taken up our cause and is screening The Garden, a documentary about the South Central Farmers, in addition to running a silent auction in order to help us get over the ~$5000 hump that remains between us and ordering all of the tractor parts. A representative from the South Central Farmers will be there to give a short talk and we are wondering whether anyone more involved and well versed in Open Source Ecology than ourselves will be in the area to give a little talk. If so, feel free to message us or write at dhtractormfgr[at]gmail[dot]com

    Thanks very much
  • i think the closest people in so cal are ryan lutz and brianna kuffa.

    both would be good for a speech but not sure their availability
  • Could you guys set up a teleconference? There would be more scheduling flexibility if the speaker didn't have to physically be there.
  • That is a good idea Matt, and would most likely be possible.
  • Before I try to contact Ryan and Brianna, who do you think, Matt, would be available for a brief videoconference on the evening of the 17th?
  • james slade might be good since he's been working on the tractors up at fef and is now working on one in austin.

    pretty sure he's got skype and all

    they do a lot of events at their austin place so make sure he checks his calendar

    he's got two different emails listed on there but ive only used a third gmail one

    jameswslade at gmail
  • or possibly tom griffing too

  • I sent out some emails but I haven't heard anything back.
  • Thank you for writing them. I will send an email to James Salde. As I understand it, the video-call should take place at about 6:20, give or take 30 minutes.
  • Hayden and Daniel,

    What a great project! Personally the LifeTrac is my favorite thing to work on at the moment and its pretty straight forward. I have one here that we're upgrading to version 4 and should be done in a couple days. If you guys would like to talk, ping my email with a time and I'll try and meet that. jamesslade at creationflame dot org or jameswslade at gmail will work. The gmail will likely get a faster response. 

    I'm going to be on the road this weekend and will likely not be able to do a video call, but if we could at least talk before then, that may be beneficial. Worst case you can hit me up with as many questions as you may have in an email and I can respond to those.

    The new arms and quick attach wheels are definitely the way to go. However, the instructions for those are not accurate at this time. Once we get done with the fab work here I'll do my best to get them updated. I'll have to get with Marcin as well for a proper BOM of the new parts.

  • Even without a v-call from OSE, we had an excellent night. We raised $3,027, almost doubling our money, and bringing us to $6268. We ill now be able to order off for most all of the parts. Before that, though, I will get in touch with you, James so we can find out what we should be ordering. Thanks everyone.
  • Hey everyone here is video from our first day in the shop:

    Questions forthcoming.
  • Hey D,H & team,
    Just wanted to say how very inspiring it is to see you picking up the OSE ideas and making them real.

    Keep up the good work!

    Alastair (in France)
  • Hey everyone, 

    Here is a pretty substantial update.
  • Wow, congratulations on the completion of the build. It came along quite quickly!

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