In a story scripted for Good Morning America 83 year old Hugh Lyman invented the Lyman Extruder II, a simple desktop open source machine that converts ABS plastic pellets into filament. Mr. Lyman also won a $40,000 prize with his invention and in case you were wondering supplements his making activities with fishing and golf.
I thought this was a wonderful story and it is a significant invention. I was also moved by Mr. Lyman’s YouTube comment, “This is an open source project free to the world.” Not only by the quote but because it was a YouTube comment by an 83 year old inventor who had just really pushed 3D printing forward. Modernity still surprises. As does YouTube with no crappy comments and no people falling to the floor and flopping around like fish for once.
Effects of Lyman
Filament currently retails for $40-$50 online in several 3D printing material stores and 3D printer retailers. By letting people buy pellets the cost per kilo might be reduced as much as ten fold. You can buy pellets from $5 to $10 a kilo and much cheaper even if you buy direct from large distributors or plastics majors.
Cheaper 3D printing
This extruder will therefore have a significant effect on pricing. If you wanted to print a mug it would have previously cost you $5 and now perhaps $0.5. This is a huge difference for 3D printer operators, you can make many more things at lower cost. Many more designs will become feasible at this price point. You also now don’t really have to think about using up material but can rather impulse 3D print many more things. Many more desktop 3D printed products now make sense. And for many things the price differential between the 3D printed thing and the mass produced item at the store has eroded or even disappeared altogether. This will make desktop 3D printing a cheaper hobby, more useful for some business applications and significantly reduce the TCO of the machines in any application. ABS based FDM printers in one fell swoop just became 10 times cheaper to use. This will push the demand curve for the technology significantly outward.
Example of installed base improvement
Better still this points to proof that indeed this market can be improved quickly by inventions that improve conditions for the installed base of 3D printers. If the software gets better, everyone with a 3D printer benefits. If lasers get better any SLS printer gets better. If resins get better Objet benefits etc. If materials get stronger they can be immediately deployed on compatible machines. This is different from traditional manufacturing whereby each new technological innovation can not be immediately applied to existing factories. Because 3D printing is a 3 factor input process furthermore any of these 3 factors (machine, file, material) can be readily identified and improved upon, this is much more difficult in a fragmented complex mass manufacturing supply chain. It is in this manner that developments in 3D printing will out pace technological developments in mass manufacturing. 3D printing innovation can simply enter into use much more quickly.
Example of business problems and realities being solved by a Maker for Makers
The reason these materials were so expensive in the first place is that the market was too fragmented with too many different 3D printing solutions consuming different materials. There were lots of small vendors that placed small orders and fragmented these even further by wanting lots of different colors. This meant that these vendors could not achieve the low cost and scale that was needed for cheap filament. They bought from small time distributors or intermediaries and traders and were nuisance customers which also drove up the cost. I know this because I’ve been working on this problem for some months and came close to cracking it but, well, moving right along. Also with prices & margins artificially high everyone was not exactly keen to cut prices so prices stayed high. And what ended happening in the end? This whole inefficient chain of vendors was circumvented by a tool made by a maker making 3D printing more efficient. This is not only significant for now but points to this happening more in the future. You might be able to rip off a guy who wants to print out a term paper or airline ticket but you can’t indefinitely rip off a guy that wants to print everything.
One to many
Another great effect is that now its much simpler to give away things. Like this key chain? Keep it. This gets 3D printed things into many more people’s hands. By giving away more things and letting people keep lots of things and making it cheaper to sell 3D printed things we can turn these products into ambassadors for the technology. We can give away things that illustrate the capability & cost of these machines. Most importantly the people that have these things can now tell their story to their friends and family spreading the technology further around the world.
With lower costs we will all be able to fail harder, better, faster and stronger. We’ll be able to make many more versions of things and test out many more things. We will be able to more easily test out each other’s designs and print out things with more whimsy or more adventure. This should in time lead to better product development in 3D printed things. We should see better things emerging more quickly than they have. More beautiful and functional things should also get made, all with more rapidity. This will also lead to increased demand for 3D printing.
But..this gets better yet, FilaMaker, Recylcebot and FilaBot
But, this story gets better still. There are a bunch of other similar project out there such as Joshua Pearce’s Recyclebot (more info here at RepRap). FilaBot is a KickStarter funded project to make a personal filament maker. FilaMaker is a project by Marcus Thymark to combine a grinder with a filament maker (good name, Marcus Thymark, sounds like he should be invading Carthage or something). You can see a video below of Marcus’ grinder.
Recycle your 3D prints.
So what would a reliable grinder+filament maker mean? It would mean that you could recycle your 3D prints. Don’t like your mug or fractal whatnot, just recycle it. Bored with your keychain, turn it into a new one. This would also in and of itself significantly reduce the cost of 3D printing because not only is the kilo price much lower but you would iterate while reusing material and only keep what is perfect or memorable. Keep a picture frame, fridge magnet or gift and all other things would be in flux. This would greatly reduce the environmental impact of the entire 3D printing ecosystem and also lead to increased adoption. Also, we can now totally hit on Greenpeace chicks.
3D print for free!
But..does it get better still? Oh yes it does, because a reliable grinder & filament maker could recycle household waste and turn that into 3D printing filament. So take your old Coke bottle tops and turn them into a nice Coca Cola red 3D printed bracelet. This would be a huge reduction in the environmental impact of 3D printing in the home and indeed make closed loop recycling in the home possible. It would also make 3D printing free. We could print whatever we like. And it would cost us nothing. This should help drive desktop 3D printer adoption as well.
Wow, so nothing bad’s going to happen?
Mmmm…well first off we have to be sure that these machines will even work repeatably at scale. Can they produce the correct diameter’s consistently? Will there be bubbling and breakage. And since these things are rather slow, can you leave it on overnight without it burning your house down? We have to realize also that sooner or later someone is going to get very ill from putting the wrong kind of plastic in the machine or from fumes. If you melt PVC you might expose yourself to dioxin. Styrofoam has fun carcinogens too. Other plastics can also release dioxins when melted or burnt. Many melted plastics release fumes that to a more or lesser degree are harmful to us. So incorrect or possibly also correct usage of these devices could lead to people developing cancer. This doesn’t have to stop this thing in its tracks but should give us a moment to take pause. But, then again cigarettes give us cancer and people use those things all the time and they don’t even let you 3D print. But, because of this it is unlikely that these devices will go beyond the kit form. Perceived liability will also deter investors.
Speaking of investors, what about other negative things?
Well, if we do go on there is one more rather negative thing. In order to explain that I have to take you to a land far far away, a magical enchanted land of sunshine, dreams, hopes and possibility. This land is inhabited by a mystical and very powerful tribe of creatures with otherworldly names such as Thiel, Khosla, Efrusy & Doerr. The name of this magical land is Sand Hill Road. This tribe of creatures is called the VC’s. The VC’s are fearless, brainy, influential and very good at one thing: risk. Just how good are these creatures at judging risk? They’re amazing, thats why they all live smack dab in the middle of an earth quake zone in a city guaranteed to at one point fall into the sea. Yes, kids, these guys know risk like no one else. These gallant and courageous creatures fear only three things: capital gains, hardware and the Emperor of Trolls, Myhrvold. When Myhrvold stomps around the wastelands of Texas the VC’s scurry and hide in their restaurants but other than that these proud creatures are free to roam the far corners of the earth. When Lord Myhrvold returns to his castle to cook up his potions they come out, blinking their eyes adjusting to the bright sunny glow of their land paved in sun, bar charts and gold. These creatures are super smart, like owls every one. They feed only off of dreams and Excel. They are the guardians of invention deciding which idea becomes a thing. And they make amazing things such as social media video app platforms and also sometimes media video social app media platforms or sometimes even app social media video platforms and many amazing things like that. Recently I even heard that they made a social app video media platform. Theres talk, but only talk, of them even perhaps getting together to, wait for it, make a social video media app platform. Truly world changing stuff! And to think they had humble beginnings in boring things such as semiconductors, these creatures have come a long way indeed. The tribe is really more of a heard but a herd that pretends its not a herd if that makes sense kids. Just imagine a group of mythical zebras pretending that they all don’t have stripes. And also pretending never to talk to one another. Just like a magic lamp you go to them and rub them the right way and they grant you a wish. This wish is called a term sheet. But, unlike a genie you must never ever let them grant you your first wish. What you really want is a second term sheet. Also, unlike a genie you can not wish whatever you want but rather only wish something really really big. VC’s never grant small wishes. Besides the rubbing you need a few things as well, some shiny PowerPoint as an offering, some yummy Excel to sustain them and some items called barriers to entry, business model, defensibility and a dream. These all combine to form a magical potion and if the potion is just right magical potion, the VC’s will grant you your wish.
So a few days ago our young hero Brock, good at Lacrosse, arrogance and pivot tables, jumps out of bed to work on his magic slides. And the numbers are good, yummy tasty VC numbers. Because Brock is going to take the VC’s fear of hardware away with these yummy tasty consumables numbers. Its not a machine, its HP. Its not an industry, its Gillette. You see, what we’re selling them a 3D printing solution and the 3D printing material is a part of that, this is a platform. And with those yummy margins on the material the whole potion just makes sense. He just knows the VC’s will grant him his wish and he’ll be in his own jet faster than you kids can say abracadabra. But, then Brock reads about an 83 year old man who has just won a prize for something called a Filament Extruder. Brock breaks down crying sure that the mystical people up on that hill of greenbacks will never make his dreams come true. 30 years in the trenches at McExcel are to be his lot.
So kids, the moral of the story? Brock is fucked. The VC money to this market just went poof, like Amp’d mobile poof, gone. This is the downside, we bootstrap and kickstart from here on out.