These days, 3D printers seem to be everywhere. You can build your own, go to one of the TechShops around the country, and maybe even find a pop-up store like the one that came to midtown Manhattan in December and offered dozens of objects for sale, along with the opportunity to watch several printers in action creating them.
Pop Into a Pop-Up Store
During the holidays, at least one pop-up 3D printing store set up shop in Manhattan.
(Source: David Strom)
As 3D printers have become more popular, various open-source designs have helped drive printer costs down to less than $500. But one thing that's still pretty pricey is the ink -- the plastic resins and other materials the printers use to create their objects. These materials can cost $25 per pound, or about 10 times the price of the raw source.
But those costs may be a thing of the past, thanks to an octogenarian inventor who won the recent Desktop Fabrication Competition. Hugh Lyman of Enumclaw, Wash., received $40,000, an FS Laser Cutter, a Shapeoko CNC Mill, and a 3D printer for his winning design.
The contest was co-sponsored by Inventables.com, the Kauffman Foundation, and the Maker Education Initiative. The competition began in May and received several designs for devices that would lower the cost of producing plastic filaments that could be spooled and used in a variety of 3D printers. Designs had to have a bill of materials that cost no more than $250, and they had to be easily reproduced.
Lyman came across the contest last summer and built a first design in Autocad. That design, which he submitted in September, was rejected due to documentation omissions. He reworked his design, called it the Lyman Filament Extruder II, and submitted what proved to be the winning entry. He posted his design on Thingiverse, where it has been downloaded more than 12,000 times. He is no stranger to the popular 3D maker website, as you can see by this list of inventions.
I spoke with Lyman and found he is quite a character. He told me that he was a C student in school and never finished college, "not because I was dumb, I just couldn't afford it." He likes to create things, and he latched on to 3D printing early in its evolution. His idea was to fill a hopper with the raw plastic source material, melt it, and shape it in the form of the filament, which is then spooled up and used by the printer to shape the final objects.
Lyman holds eight patents. His first was for a mobile cabinet design that won a Denver school contract in 1967. "I haven't made any money from my patents. But I did write the last five patent applications myself, which was quite a learning process." But in the last decade or so, he has grown tired of patenting his ideas. "It isn't worth it anymore. I would rather open-source things now."
He built his first 3D printer from a kit and then cannibalized it to build a second (and then a third) in his workshop. His current device can print objects that are smaller than 300x300x225mm. He has printed statues of Greek goddesses and items he sells on eBay, including jewelry and parts for a computer-controlled router. One of his more popular items is what he calls a Stretchlet. "I gave the first one to my wife, and she wore it around town and got great reaction to it." Being a kind person, his wife keeps giving her bracelet to admirers, "so I would have to print her up another one." So far, he has made more than a dozen.
To get an idea of how his extruder has helped to drive the cost of 3D printing down, Lyman estimates that each Stretchlet used to require 15 cents of materials. Since he created his extruder, the price has dropped to two cents. Now imagine an equally dramatic decrease for heavier, more complex plastic parts.
"It is impressive that younger people are doing high-tech stuff, but it doesn't make any difference how old you are if you keep your mind sharp and stay active," Lyman said.
I wonder what he'll invent next.
— David Strom is a world-known expert on networking and communications technologies. He has worked extensively in the IT end-user computing industry and has managed editorial operations for trade publications in the network computing, electronics components, computer enthusiast, reseller channel, and security markets.