3D printing holds great promise for prototyping and small-volume production, but it has the potential for high volume production as well. Over time, the software interfaces that control these machines will improve, the number of files available for printing will increase exponentially, and the precision of the machines will be indistinguishable from parts made on an injection molding machine. However, to become competitive with conventional manufacturing processes, the unit cost of each part produced by 3D printers must be reduced.
Low-cost 3D printing, including Up! Plus, Makerbot’s Replicator II, Cubify, Printrbot, Solidoodle, and the Ultimaker, range in price from $399-$2200. These machines require extruded plastic filament that costs about $40-$54 per kg. This is between 5-10 times the cost of the raw resin pellets. Last year, at Maker Faire in San Mateo, we launched a global competition to find ways to reduce the cost of producing parts on a 3D printer that uses plastic filament as its feedstock.
The competition was a designed as a prospective prize. This meant the reward went to the first team or individual to successfully meet all the critera. The open call to the world offered a prize that included $40,000 cash provided by theKauffman Foundation through the Maker Education Initiative, and a 3D printer, Shapeoko CNC Mill, and a desktop laser cutter provided by Inventables.
Here were the rules:
The first team/person to build an open source filament extruder for less than $250*(calculation details below) in components can take ABS or PLA resin pellets, mix them with colorant, and extrude enough 1.75mm diameter +/- .05mm filament that can be wrapped on a 1kg spool. The machine must use the Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0).At Inventables we will verify the BOM posted matches the machine sent. We will verify we can order all the parts from suppliers in an attempt to build it ourselves. We will then run the machine and verify it meets the criteria listed on the challenge. After we are done with the evaluation we will send the machine back if you wish.The competition will end when the first person sends in a valid solution. If the clock runs out before then we will likely extend the time frame. The decision will be based on what the state of the art solutions for 3D printers look like at that time.The winner of the competition will be objectively determined by the first one to upload a solution to the iStart website.
Thirty eight teams registered to compete. We received three fully assembled functional machines and one of the three met all the criteria stated in the contest.
The winner was Hugh Lyman, an 83 year old retiree who lives in the greater Seattle metropolitan area. Hugh has been designing and manufacturing products and devices almost his entire life. He owned a manufacturing company with up to 100 employees that he sold in 1996. These days he spends most of his time inventing in his home workshop below, along with golfing and fishing. Time.com had a story about him and the contest today.
Hugh has built and rebuilt his own 3D printer several times. He has also built a small pad-binding machine that he sells online. When Hugh saw the competition he thought it would be a fun challenge that he could tackle. I had dinner with Hugh and his wife last Saturday and his wife Jeanne said, “he never stops.” She explained that working on his projects keeps him young. For someone 83 years young, Hugh is sharp as a tack. The machine is called the Lyman Extruder, which is shown below in a diagram and photo.
The Lyman Filament Extruder extrudes filament from pellets for use in a 3D Printer. It can extrude 1.75mm and 3mm filament with easy nozzle exchange. The material cost is about $250. You pour the pellets into the black cup and it is slowly mixed and fed. He used an auger drill bit to do the mixing. To my surprise, despite the short distance when I ran the tests, I used a let-down ratio of about 2% red pellets and it yielded a consistently light red color filament that was in spec.
Here’s Hugh’s video of the machine in action:
Hugh has released a second version of the machine and we’ve already seen other folks improve the design like this.
This competition is evidence that the R&D labs of the future are not only inside the walls of major corporations and research labs. It demonstrates that by identifying a clear need and presenting a clear incentive people all over the world can help develop solutions. The clarity encouraged people to participate who might not have seen the problem, but were willing to experiment with possible solutions. Hugh’s success here is evidence that anyone regardless of age can develop and reduce to practice ideas and inventions in their house. Digital fabrication tools are going to distribute production but they are also distributing R&D. The R&D lab of the future is borderless and resides with those that have interest. As of the publishing of this post Hugh’s design has been downloaded by 10,484 people all around the world.
Zach Kaplan is the CEO of Inventables.