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>But if you start a colony of 10,000 on the surface of a planet, it would 
>still need support from Earth (at least one ship every 50 years), 
>because it is unlikely that a small community can repair or rebuild 
>vital large scale equipment (say a fusion power plant) on their own.

Some time ago I suggested that most everyday objects should be
re-engineered to be made from a small amount of different substances, with
the goal to need a minimal amount of equipment needed to produce the objects.
Furthermore the objects should be easy to assemble by humans and parts
should be easy (in a short time) to replace. I'm assuming that automatic
assembly would need to much specific equipment. The human assemblers would
have access to a database which explains how to assemble each object.
This may mean that the objects don't look nice, or that they actually use a
bit more plastic or copper. It probably also means that making bulk amounts
of such objects will actually take much more time and energy than in
today's normal production proces. (Eg. rather than making plastic molds for
all kinds of objects, blocks of plastic will be milled into the right shape
by an preprogrammed automatic miller.)

My guess is that a lot of time can be gained by the above scenario.

Also a way to automatically produce food would be a real time saver. I'm
not thinking about a varied meal with all kinds of vegetables, meat and
whatever. It may be a few square lumps of protein, sugar and fat. These
substances probably could somehow be produced in bulk without the need of
farming. (Think of tanks of bacteria that turn some substance in an other.)
I'm not suggesting that this would be the diet for say 50 years, but that
it should be a base to fall back upon when time is scarce.

Likely other scenarios can be thought of to save time. Keep in mind that we
do want to optimize small production amounts, rather than bulk amounts.
Also that certain resources may not be considered as scarce as on Earth.
(Eg. If we find a single oilwell, we'd have enough for thousants of years.
A single vein of gold would suffice for a similar amount of time.)
Also things like pollution control would make little sense.

These are just some things that come to mind, there must be many others. So
I do wonder if we need as large numbers of colonists as some think.