If there were an award for Emerging Gadget Most Likely to Change Everything, it might well go to the 3D printer. These devices, which turn digital blueprints into physical objects made out of plastic or other materials, are getting better, simpler and cheaper at such a dizzying pace that it’s not hard to imagine a future in which they’re as pervasive as PCs. Already, you can buy a basic desktop model for under $500.
It’s dangerous, however, to get too hung up on the sticker prices of the 3D printers themselves. Just as most of the cost of conventional ink-jet printing comes in the form of those pricey ink cartridges, the spools of plastic filament which a 3D printer layers into an object have a huge impact on the long-term economics of 3D printing. The filament is far more costly than pellets made of exactly the same plastic: “It’s like a 10x difference,” says Zach Kaplan, the CEO of Inventables, an online store which supplies 3D printers and supplies along with other products for the do-it-yourself inventors who make up the thriving maker movement.
Kaplan and the Pocket Factory‘s Bilal Ghalib, another member of the maker community, were at the Inventables office bemoaning the high cost of filament when Ghalib had a brainstorm: Why not challenge the community to create a low-cost, open-source machine which could convert pellets into filament? Smitten with the proposal, Kaplan took it to Lesa Mitchell, vice president of innovation and networks at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based institution created in 1966 by the founder of pharmaceutical company Marion Laboratories.
The foundation focuses its efforts on entrepreneurship and education, and is already deeply involved in the maker community though activities such as participation in Maker Faires. It wants to bring 3D printing to everybody, so that everybody with an idea for a product can turn it into reality. Mitchell thought that cheap filament could help.
When “we saw the launch of what I would call the digital advanced manufacturing movement,” she says, “the high-end cool kids were able to do this, but not necesarily the little kids or the families who can’t afford to buy all the software necessary and can’t afford to buy a Makerbot. We need to figure out how to democratize making. The only way that was going to happen was if we could lower the cost.”
In May of 2012, the contest, dubbed the Desktop Factory Competition, debuted on iStart.org, a Kauffman-owned platform for entrepreneurial competitions. Sponsored by Inventables, Kauffman and the Maker Education Initiative, it offered $40,000 from Kauffman and hardware prizes such as a 3D printer from Inventables to the first person or team who submitted plans for an open-source device capable of turning plastic pellets into filament. The rules also mandated that the parts involved could cost no more than $250, priced at a 400-unit quantity.
The goal “required some ingenuity,” says Kaplan. “The folks who took a look at it thought it might be easier than it was to meet all the requirements. But when the rubber hit the road it took 10 months to find someone who met them all.”
It’s not startling that someone successfully met the challenge posed by the contest; 3D printing enthusiasts are, almost by definition, enterprising and inventive. And the $40,000 bounty was certainly alluring. But it’s unlikely that anyone involved in the competition would have guessed that its winner would be an enterprising inventor who happened to have been born during the Hoover administration.
That inventor is 83-year-old Hugh Lyman, who lives near Enumclaw, Wash., 35 miles southeast of Seattle. Until he retired 17 years ago, Lyman ran Ly Line Products, a manufacturer of scientific cabinetry and related items such as fume hoods. He’s been a forward-thinking technologist for a long time: in 1976, Computerworld magazine wrote about Ly Line’s use of the IBM 5100, an early “portable computer” which weighed 55 pounds.
Today, he engages in his share of classic golden-years pursuits: He is, for instance, an avid fisherman and golfer. But he’s also a passionate participant in the maker movement.
“After I retired in 1996, I started doing some inventing,” says Lyman, whose creations include a table-top gizmo which binds stacks of loose paper into pads. “I designed a few products, and I had them made on a 3D printer….and then I forgot about it.” Years later, he learned about kits for building low-cost desktop 3D printers. He built one, and then another and then another. And he’s used them to print everything from bracelets for his wife to statues of Aphrodite for friends to parts for his inventions.
When Lyman heard about the Desktop Factory Competition, he was instantly intrigued, in part because he’d benefit if the problem it set out to address was solved. “Every time I buy a couple of pounds of filament, it costs me forty to fifty bucks,” he explains. “I was burning through it pretty fast.” He also shared the contest organizers’ vision of pervasive, democratized manufacturing: “I would think that at least half the homes in the world will eventually have a 3D printer.”
Lyman describes himself as an “undergraduate engineer” — he studied engineering from 1948-1953 at the University of Utah, but didn’t earn a degree. Though he holds eight patents, he says he’s “not educated enough to be able to do calculations of torque and so forth.” So implementing his contest entry “was trial and error. I tinkered with it and used common sense.”
His first entry, the Lyman Filament Extruder, could indeed turn inexpensive plastic pellets into filament. But when Lyman entered the device in the contest in August of 2012, it was disqualified on the grounds that it failed to come in under the $250 limit for parts; he hadn’t accounted for the cost of a few parts he’d fabricated himself.
So he returned to his drawing board and came up with the Lyman Filament Extruder II. “It’s my first machine with a few little parts changed,” he says. “I resubmitted it, and it worked. It worked great.” The judges agreed and declared him as the winner.
With either Lyman Extruder, you fill a hopper with plastic pellets, then flip a switch to turn on a heater. The contraption melts the pellets, then squeezes the resulting molten plastic into filament which emerges from a nozzle and coils on the floor.
Here it is in action:
This home-made filament dramatically improves the economics of 3D printing. For instance, producing 392 chess pieces in a particular color requires one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of plastic. Buy one spool of mass-produced filament, and that will cost you about $50. Buy a kilogram of pellets and make your own filament, and the cost goes down to $10. Buy 25 kilograms of pellets in bulk, and you can print the chess pieces for just $5.
Even before Lyman’s contest victory — which is being formally announced today — was official, his invention began making a difference in the world of 3D printing. Almost 12,000 people around the world have downloaded the plans for his two extruders to date, and some of them have been building their own units, sometimes modifying or improving upon his design. At least one 3D printer company, Lulzbot, hopes to sell a pre-assembled version. “I’ve been getting e-mails from all over the world,” Lyman marvels.
All those folks are Lyman’s kindred spirits, but it’s a safe bet that most of them are a fraction of his age. He says it’s O.K. with him if people want to take his achievement as a reminder that senior citizenship does not bar anyone from doing new things. And he plans to continue to do new things himself: He’s at work on a third-generation extruder.
As for his $40,000 windfall, it’s already spoken for: “I’m going to give half of it to the wife, and tinker with the other half.” Spoken like a true maker.