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83-Year-Old Inventor Wins an Open Source Competition to Make 3D Printing Cheaper

By Wesley Fenlon

The Lyman Filament Extruder melts down cheap plastic pellets into spools of filament, making the materials for 3D printers like the MakerBot dramatically cheaper.

3D printing's not just a game for the young, as 83-year-old inventor Hugh Lyman recently proved. Lyman won a novelty check worth $40,000 from the Maker Education Initiative, Inventables, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, all big proponents of entrepreneurship and 3D printing, for his latest invention. That invention takes little plastic pellets, which are incredibly cheap, and melts them down into long strands of plastic filament, which are not so cheap. The resulting filament can be used in 3D printers like the Makerbot to create objects, and the Lyman Filament Extruder makes those materials cheaper than ever.

Lyman didn't just invent his extruder spontaneously. In May 2012, Inventables CEO Zach Kaplan and the Kauffman Foundation started up a contest to overcome the high cost of plastic filament spools, which can be up to 10 times more expensive than pellets. Their challenge set a high bar: Inventors had to create an open source machine to convert pellets to filament spools, and the parts could cost no more than $250.

Photo via Thingiverse

The $40,000 prize was a big draw, but Inventables and Kauffman threw in some other 3D printing prizes as well. And if there's anything you can count on the maker movement to do just for the fun of it, it's inventing something to make 3D printing even more affordable.

Lyman actually toyed around with using 3D printers for inventions when he first retired in 1996, but the technology wasn't anything like it is today. He got back into 3D printing in the last few years, printing objects for fun, and liked the idea of the contest--particularly because spools of printing material can cost $50 a pop. So he tackled the challenge and won. His invention, naturally, used some 3D printed components. His second version--which was actually the one that won the contest--is available on Thingiverse.

Time's full story on Lyman is worth reading. It talks about his past as an inventor, before even the early days of 3D printing, and offers more background on the contest's sponsors. Lyman even uploaded a video of the extruder in action prior to winning the contest.

Since Lyman's design is open source, it's possible (and even likely) that someone will improve on the Lyman Filament Extruder before long. And they'll undoubtedly build some of its components with a MakerBot.