Technologizer

How an 83-Year-Old Inventor Beat the High Cost of 3D Printing

A contest to design a machine to produce low-cost filament for 3D printing has been won -- by a Washington State retiree.

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Courtesy Zach Kaplan

Zach Kaplan, CEO of Inventables (left), presents a commemorative giant check to inventor and competition winner Hugh Lyman on March 2, 2013 at Seattle's MakerHaus

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.

[image] plastic filament

Inventables

A spool of plastic filament for 3D printing

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.”

[image] Makerbot Replicator 2

Makerbot

Makerbot’s $2199 Replicator 2

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.

[image] Hugh Lyman

Courtesy Hugh Lyman

Inventor Hugh Lyman

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.”

[image] Lyman Filament Extruder

Hugh Lyman

Lyman’s first filament extruder.

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.

31 comments
SusanDuteau
SusanDuteau

Susan Duteau

susan@jagprint.com

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LizHavlin
LizHavlin

See the updated video for the Lyman Desktop Filament Extruder - University of Washington - facebook.com/savant3D 


sentury168
sentury168

Dear Mr Lyman, Thank you for your wonderful invention. Where may I download the template plans for your extruders?


darrenchris
darrenchris

I thought I read an article recently that someone invented a way to turn used plastic milk jugs into the plastic pellets? Or shred the milk jugs into usable bits?

ElenaHaskins
ElenaHaskins

This is inspirational.

Mr. Lyman: can you do this with hemp plastic so that humans like me can thoroughly enjoy creating with plastic?


aricnorine
aricnorine

How is this different than the Filabot machine that debuted on Kickstarter back in 2011?  It looks like the same thing.  Filabot also has a  grinder attached "recycling" unused prints back into usable material.    Anybody know?

jsipe16
jsipe16

Congrats, Mr. Lyman!  I'm just south of you--down in Portland.  You should join up for a meeting of DorkbotPDX.  We are tinkerers who include CNC, 3D printer builders, arduino and microcontroller fans, robotics inventors, and other tinkering folks.  I am building my very first CNC machine, and this has inspired me to try and build a 3D printer afterwards!

Seniorpreneur
Seniorpreneur

Congratulations Hugh Lyman on winning a high-tech digital manufacturing competition.  I love it when people say that the 50+ Entrepreneur is on his last legs and is not capable of any inventive thinking that can change the world.  How many more 83 year old inventors are out there who have a great idea but in most cases will not get a second or third encore opportunity.  We need to get behind all the potential older entrepreneurs around the World

Hugh, you can stand up and take a bow as thousands of people are now giving you a standing ovation. 

Joe W.

Seniorpreneur

drhill
drhill

The history of 'independent' innovative minds is a continuum. Kilby's 'chip' where TI did not want to know about his private invention when he went to see them - now underpining a $2 trillion industry. Baird with the TV and did it all in his attic at home. Berners-Lee and not CERN thinking created the WWW and launched it whilst he was on a 6 months commission working for them (he could have been working anywhere). Whittle with the jet engine and no-one took notice of his thinking for 10-years until WW2 was looming. Boole a totally self-taught mathematician who never had a degree but invented the '0' and '1' that drive the digital age. Grove who invented the fundamentals of the fuel-cell was a circuit judge. The list just goes on and one and it will be the modern equivalent people who will change the world again in the future. Unfortunately politicians and industrialists have not a clue of who's thinking really invented the modern world,  Dr David Hill, World Innovation Foundation

snoozinglion
snoozinglion

Great job!

Good work and excellent video.

Thanks for sharing.


seth1
seth1

shouldnt some one set a higher speed one up and sell the filament cheaper?   Seems like the cost of filament should be just a bit above the cost of the pellets -  why do the commercial suppliers jack up the price? 

n.e.w.
n.e.w.

Brilliant use of Moonlight Sonata--slow almost crawling, but ever moving forward. Love it!

adam.sys
adam.sys

The next step is obvious: Integrate the auger into the 3D printer head! Love it!

drhill
drhill

Great inventor and like most in the history of S&T who have made their mark on society, totally independent of universities and major corporations. Indeed according to S&T history around 80% of the modern world has been created by independent inventors outside the confines of the R&D establishment.

Dr David Hill

World Innovation Foundation

Norro21
Norro21

Unfortunately you don't include the running costs of the machine in your calculation.  At the advertised consumption and feedrate your chess pieces are going to cost no where near $10

hlyman
hlyman

I am very impressed with your article.

Will it be published in the magazine?

Hugh Lyman

HomeOwner
HomeOwner

@darrenchris Not exactly pellets for anything associated with 3D printing - the milk jugs are polyethylene, and 3D printers don't use it (yet?) as far as I know. But I do know someone who makes machinable wax out of milk jags by chopping them up and dissolving them in hot veg oil. The procedure is incredibly dangerous (hot oil burns and fire hazard) and the amount of actual material is not all that great (considering the risks) but the man just hates throwing *anything* out - so that works for him. 

Makes you appreciate the efforts that proper recycling actually takes. It's easy to burn the stuff or bury it but not all that easy to turn it into something useful again.

dgriffith7
dgriffith7

@drhill "Unfortunately politicians and industrialists have not a clue of who's thinking really invented the modern world"
Sadly, that's exactly what I was thinking in 2008 when we bailed out the auto companies.  How many tinkerers had the nextgen transport vehicle in their garage that could revolutionize an industry if only their barriers to entry were removed?  Instead, we propped up inefficient mfrs that no longer innovated and didn't allow creative destruction to work its magic.  Except for improved safety and communication, the automobile still goes forward and back and moves people long distances in similar fashion to how it was done 100 years ago.  How would the tinkerers fill the void of a failed auto manufacturer?  Unfortunately, we won't know anytime soon..

joeaverager
joeaverager

@seth1 Profit! Everybody that touches something from factory to delivery will raise the prices - sometimes 100%. That sofa you bought? The store where I worked marked their retails prices up 80% from the wholesale prices so a 20% discount sale wasn't nearly the "deal" everyone thought it was. I also know some commercial sales guys that also have an 80% markup beyond the wholesale price. That's the margin the online retailers like Amazon have been able to exploit. I know my employer gets about a 50% discount with an office supply store below retail prices b/c we buy in bulk. 

beavertank
beavertank

@Norro21The electrical consumption of the filament extruder and the 3D printer itself are both quite low. While they do add something to the total it's a small fraction of the cost of the raw materials. If you want to add in your own time for setting up the process, running it, and monitoring it, the total "cost" would change dramatically, but because it's not an actual outlay of cash it's not really an appropriate addition to the point the article was trying to make.

HomeOwner
HomeOwner

@hlyman Congratulations of winning the prize and an awesome machine! Are you working on any kind of shredder for it to make pellets from discarded pieces of ABS parts? I'm looking at an old computer right now and thinking there must be a pound or so of ABS in there (unfortunately, different colors) - the case front panel, the drives' front panels, inside the CD/DVD drive - they are everywhere! Well, some parts need to be removed from devices first but there's plenty of ABS everywhere around in the house.  Would be nice to turn *that* into filament, too! 

I am also curious what happens with your machine when you're out of pellets for the day and need to shut it down - do you just turn the heater on and let it warm up for a while next time you use it or do you have to disassemble while the thing is still hot and clean it right away?

Thanks again and congrats! 

harrymccracken
harrymccracken moderator

@hlyman I don't think so, Hugh, but congratulations again!

harrymccracken
harrymccracken moderator

@beavertank @Norro21 I think the greatest potential of Mr. Lyman's creation is when it's not a stand-alone kit you need to buy yourself, but is rather a feature built directly into 3D printers.

hlyman
hlyman

@HomeOwner @hlyman  

I am not working on shredding plastic yet as I am to busy answering emails. I had a note from a fellow in Germany that shreds plastic by freezing in a freezer the poring liquid nitrogen over and shredding it a kitchen blender.

When I am done extruding I just turn off the motor and the heat. Next time I extrude turn on the heat and wait 30 minutes before turning on the motor.

Thanks for the congrats.

hlyman
hlyman

@harrymccracken If you can think of it, it is possible. However:

"Engineered Simlicity is today's answer to tomorrow's maintenance", my motto.

jebba
jebba

@harrymccrackenAnother great potential for the Lyman Extruder is it allows for experimentation with new types of filament. We (LulzBot) lent one to Colorado State University. This snippet of an email update from them will give you a taste for what's to come:

"This week we should begin dabbling with some unique polymers. First, I want to try simply oxidizing the ABS by exposing it to O2 plasma, to see if this decreases the hydrophobicity of the extruded plastic. A wettable plastic would be a good thing. Then, I want to try incorporating some anthocyanin into the plastic. Anthocyanin is the purple to red (depending upon pH) pigment of many fruits and flowers. Having a plastic that changes color with pH is also a good thing. [They] are interested in biocompatible/bioactive polymers, especially polymers able to express minute quantities of bioactive compounds. While we're not ready to print a new lung or kidney yet, we might be able to print something to fit around a tree branch that could slowly release a compound to, for example, kill pine bark beetles, or Dwarf Mistletoe... The possibilities are endless"