Now that mining is actually rewarding, I would like to suggest things for the other two steps of turning rocks into things - refineries and (auto)factories. I think we all agree that the current system is pretty much "set it and forget it", and thus offers very little meaningful interaction with our facilities. There is also a mastery system, which I don't see being used all that much as I guess many people have used their refinery/factory slots to either provide production facilities to their factional stations or to secure a production boost of their choosing in one of the bonus sectors, and with the resource demand being as it is, I don't think they're overly likely to constantly change around to master another resource, making this another barely used system we might fold into another, hopefully more engaging way to deal with refineries.
So what do I suggest? Production xp, which you could split up into refining/autofactorying if you feel like it, or may just leave as one system, both would work in the sense I envision. As the name suggests, you would gain this for producing things, and once you hit a certain amount of xp, your... license or so would level up, and you would gain a point you could then spend on improving your production in a variety of ways. There's really a lot of possibilities here, so I'll list a few:
- use it to gain a new facility slot, allowing you to build another factory/refinery
- add a new production line to an existing refinery/factory, allowing you to refine/produce additional things (so you could say add a vandium line to your iriil refinery, enabling the same place to handle both resources, or your autofactory could make explosives and processor arrays - what could possibly go wrong?)
- improve an existing production line (make it faster, cheaper, give it a small chance to produce bonus resources (i.e. 5% chance to produce 2 units instead of 1 in non-bonus sectors, or 3 instead of 2 in bonus sectors, make it possible to give you one unit of product for every 10/20/whatever batches processed)
- provide capacity to the NPC economy, basically using your upgrade for a passive income (the frequency of payments would need to be debated, maybe at the end of every IG month?, sum could depend on both levels and a somewhat hidden "economy score" for the place, which could be based on the sum of "economy upgrade levels" in a particular sector).
This would allow players to customise their facilities to a degree, either going a generalist route for the faraway places, or a more focused approach for things they really wish to master, while also making it possible to finally actually make money with them, and finally set refinery A apart from refinery B. Specialisations would tie in here by either starting with an additional upgrade or two/giving 10% more xp/something else. In the wake of this, refineries and autofactories should be made a little more similar, as in just set the rate you're charging (i.e. 105% of base price) instead of having to set it for every product. Also please make it possible to pay the lump sum for the refining batch ahead of time while, as many players (myself included) have asked for. The reason I have included a passive income option here is because I don't really see any way to make refineries/factories earn decent money without drastically inflating the prices for everything all across the board.
I don't think there should be a hard cap on production levels, as the nature of levels usually means that the next one requires more and more xp, meaning it would still be functionally impossible to stick a fully decked out refinery on every station in the sector, unless someone was to invest substantial amounts of time. Larger factories could also spawn "cargo" type station missions, which would require a large amount of cargo units to be moved/processed at the place in exchange for money/captaincy or production xp. May include pirates similar to assassins in passenger missions, and may add a rather large job to the facility of choice, rendering it unable to process other things for a while. It may also require limiting every player to one refinery and one autofactory per location, so two existing refineries of one person on a station would be merged into one with a secondary production line. Production licenses may be reset with a consumable artefact, too.
This is by no means a complete list of options and possibilities, so feedback is welcome. Also sorry to those expecting another wall of text from me, I tried to keep it shorter this time.