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The Almighty Buck Technology

83-Year-Old Inventor Wins $40,000 3D Printing Competition 146

harrymcc writes "The Desktop Factory Competition was a contest to create an open-source design for a low-cost machine capable of turning cheap plastic pellets into the filament used by 3D printers, with a prize of $40,000. The winner is being announced today — and he was born during the Hoover administration. I interviewed 83-year-old retiree Hugh Lyman — a proud member of the maker movement — for a story over at From the article: '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.”'"
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83-Year-Old Inventor Wins $40,000 3D Printing Competition

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 04, 2013 @11:33AM (#43068111)

    I'm glad some people still attempt projects like these without engineering degrees.

    • by amiga3D ( 567632 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @11:36AM (#43068149)

      If he used common sense then he's obviously not an engineer.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 04, 2013 @11:45AM (#43068283)

        If he used common sense then he's obviously not an engineer.

        That's right. If he were an engineer, he would have thought of all the reasons why it couldn't be done. Whereas by being "uneducated" he was too ignorant to know that it couldn't be done.

        Years ago, my dad worked for a businessman that only had a high school diploma but an idea for a medical device. The engineers said it couldn't be done. The biz guy told them to STFU or get out . The engineers finally figured it out by trial and error because what they were doing was never taught in engineering schools.

        The biz guy made tens of millions. The engineers got their $25K/year and laid off after the project was done - this was back in the 70s.

        I can't remember the guy's name.

        • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:38PM (#43069109)

          Reminds me of that poster on my ex-boss wall. "Aerodynamics say the bumblebee cannot fly. The bumblebee doesn't know and flies instead".

          He, too, wasn't someone with a pretty degree. But what he had was a lot of knowledge of human nature. He looked at an applicant and within a few minutes it was stay or go. No matter the degree, he did take a look at your previous experience, though, but even that wasn't too important, he actually went more by his "gut feeling" as he called it. I don't know what exactly it was, but it allowed him to assemble one of the best and inventive groups I was ever part of.

          Odd fellow. Later he once told me one of the reasons he hired me was that I appeared in jeans and pullover for the interview, since he believed when a tech guy tries to hide in a suit he doesn't believe enough in his own skills to get him the job. And I have to admit, I made that part of my own interview strategy. 'cause he's right, odd as it may seem. If a guy shows up for an interview in everyday clothes, it usually means that he's quite confident that his skills can land him the job despite his attire.

          • by cellocgw ( 617879 ) <> on Monday March 04, 2013 @01:50PM (#43070067) Journal

            Reminds me of that poster on my ex-boss wall. "Aerodynamics say the bumblebee cannot fly. The bumblebee doesn't know and flies instead".

            Sadly for your ex-boss and anti-scientists everywhere, the aerodynamicists (be they scientists or engineers) were quite right: the bumble bee could not fly if one assumed rigid wings. Their research led to greater understanding of a rather interesting organic control system which produces significant lift.

          • Aerodynamics say the bumblebee cannot fly.

            What's an aerodynamic?

        • by gutnor ( 872759 )

          The biz guy made tens of millions. The engineers got their $25K/year and laid off after the project was done - this was back in the 70s.

          Wow, seems like a nice guy. Seems like those asshole bosses that never understand what you do and make you work in McGuyver condition (not enough server, no license to the tool you need, no test, develop on prod, ...) but blame you you when you fail and even blame you if by luck you succeed.

          • by ethanms ( 319039 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @03:51PM (#43071521)

            Wow, seems like a nice guy. Seems like those asshole bosses that never understand what you do and make you work in McGuyver condition (not enough server, no license to the tool you need, no test, develop on prod, ...) but blame you you when you fail and even blame you if by luck you succeed.

            Haven't you heard? --

            - Success is due to leadership (i.e. executives)

            - Failure is due to execution (i.e. engineers and to a lesser degree middle managers / marketing / sometimes sales).

      • by Registered Coward v2 ( 447531 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @11:51AM (#43068347)

        If he used common sense then he's obviously not a(n) design engineer.

        There fixed it for you. He sounds like a real field engineer; someone who knows where to apply the 10 lb monkey wrench to fix the problem.

      • No, but a member of a dying breed.

      • by ArhcAngel ( 247594 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @01:05PM (#43069467)
        Reminds me of a poster we had in one of the labs I worked at.

        There comes a time in the life of every project when you must shoot the engineers and begin production!
      • He took some engineering courses in college, so that he has the amplitude to complete an engineering-required task, much like an engineer [by training] trying to develop a DSP s/w driver on Linux (he's not a computer scientist afterall).

        To most non-engineers, they only know one method of engineering that's easy to understand: trial and error. That is something all engineers take for granted and something that makes engineering intuitive...and why it is a discipline: that anyone can learn it.

    • by History's Coming To ( 1059484 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @11:39AM (#43068203) Journal
      Even the most qualified engineers on the planet sometimes resort to "getting a bigger hammer", or trial and error. You know the Saturn V rocket? One of the biggest and most complex things ever made by humans? They had problems with the combustion plate, basically a big disc of metal that the fuel is sprayed through before igniting. The combustion kept becoming unstable to the point where it was an explosion rather than a burn, and they knew it was something to do with the pattern of holes. No amount of mathematics and computing "power" back then was enough to find a solution, so they took a bunch of plates and drilled holes in them at random until they found one that worked for long enough to launch the vehicle "safely".
      • You are describing the difference between a scientist and an engineer.

        Nowadays, people who write computer programs call themselves engineers, but then I see optometrists calling themselves "doctor". Who knows where it will end.

        • by MightyYar ( 622222 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:09PM (#43068639)

          In the US, optometrists have a doctorate. Ophthalmologists go to medical school. Opticians do neither - usually an associates degree or less is required.

          • Some do have doctorates, usually when they opt for the academic career, but it is not necessary to have one to be an optometrist.
            • I just looked it up again, and I think you are mistaken. In the US, all optometrists must get their Doctor of Optometry (O.D. - Oculus Doctor).

              In other countries, the situation is different.

          • Being a physician != having a doctorate.
            • Optometrists are not physicians, so they get a doctorate (specifically a DO). Ophthalmologists are physicians, so they do not (unless they go for their PhD-MD). Opticians just go to technical school, and do not need even a bachelor's degree.

              Note this is all in the US - I don't know what country you are in.

              • Ah okay. Apologies, I misunderstood. I thought you meant to say that optometrists required the equivalent of a Bachelor of Medicine. I'm from Australia, where only a bachelor degree is required.
                • And I probably should have read your original post more thoroughly, since you were obviously making that point in the first place!
          • But if you're an ornithologist, you just need tits.

        • At Apple store employees calling themselves "genius"?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Engineering is part science and part art. I was fortunate to have engineering professors who had spent considerable time in the private sector before returning to academia. A case in point. Early in his career, one of my professors was working at General Motors. He and several other young engineers were assigned the task of designing a new torque converter. After many weeks of fluid mechanics calculations (on slide-rules), they presented their prototype. After several test runs, the senior engineer to

        • Traditionally, engineering schools never employed professors without significant industry experience. Engineering _has_ to match up with reality. Navel gazers can go on about everything being socially constructed. Engineers can't afford such sloppy thinking.

          Your experience is about the same as mine. There were of course profs with stronger theoretical background, but all had been around the block a few times.

      • Could you please point to some detailled article about this combustion plate story ?

        (I stopped searching when I realized google drives me to your old posts such this one from 2009 [])

        Sorry for the off topic

    • by Smerta ( 1855348 )
      Engineering isn't a secret club, but it is a discipline.

      Like you, I'm also very happy to see non-engineers tinker with things like this, but I'm glad that engineers are designing airplanes, implantable cardiac devices, and elevator controls.

      There is a big difference between a "one off" hobby endeavor and a safety-critical product that has to be manufactured and sold.

      BTW, I've never met an engineer who believes that his/her discipline is some kind of "secret club"... Serious question: are you a non-en
    • by 8Complex ( 10701 )

      An engineering degree is only good for checking your work. Mechanical design is purely a function of creativity, experience, and problem-solving.

      Example: Any Joe Blow can design a clothes dryer (heater, blower, rotating drum). It takes an engineer to size that motor properly so that it dies 4 days after your warranty is up.

  • Am I the only one who think about giant worms each time i hear about the "Maker movement" ?

    • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

      So you think we should drown him to extract the water of life?

      Seems kinda like a harsh way out for an 83 year old.

  • Trial & Error Works (Score:5, Informative)

    by Archangel Michael ( 180766 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @11:43AM (#43068257) Journal

    Often better than calculations. It works, because of the assumptions often needed to do calculations are wrong. I've seen a guy spend an inordinate amount of time doing calculations and what not, and then have things still not work. go back make more calculations and wash rinse repeat. He didn't understand the problem.

    Meanwhile an old timer looked and figured out the issue and had it fixed in about ten minutes.

    Granted, this is just a single example, and not every case is like this.

    • by trout007 ( 975317 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @11:52AM (#43068371)

      You don't want bridges, buildings, or airplanes designed by trial an error. The errors cost too much.

      • by Intrepid imaginaut ( 1970940 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @11:57AM (#43068455)

        Accumulating the knowledge so you didn't need trial and error probably took a fair bit of trial and error to start out with though. :)

        • by IndustrialComplex ( 975015 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @02:33PM (#43070591)

          Accumulating the knowledge so you didn't need trial and error probably took a fair bit of trial and error to start out with though. :)

          That's why as an engineer you should consider performing a Failure Modes Effects and Criticality analysis (FMECA). Quite often you can predict the error, and account for it. Sometimes you account for the error by adding in additional maintenance/inspections, other times you have spares, sometimes you perform preventative maintenance, and sometimes you put a net underneath the bridge.

          Let's assume your bridge is being constructed from stone (longevity or maintenance reasons), you know that it will eventually erode, crack, and wear out, but you build into your design features which are intended to help delay the failure, or allow for a graceful failure. So instead of designing your bridge to be covered with paint because that would block some of the environment, you forgo the protective paint and leave it exposed to the elements because now you can send a crew to inspect the bridge every 5 years for cracks/erosion/damage which might have been obscured by the paint. While the paint might have extended the life of the bridge by 10 years in ideal situations, being able to inspect the bridge might allow you to discover the crack which would cause a catastrophic failure at life-5 years.

          Sometimes you have to accept error as part of the design because correcting that error might compromise other aspects of the design.

        • Exactly, it is called engineering.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Well, the irony is that evolutionary algorithms are sometimes incredibly useful optimization techniques, and amount to the same approach:

        Sometimes the cost of not using trial and error is bigger than the cost of not using it. When your solution space is huge and discrete, sometimes it's the only way to go.

      • Cathedrals were mostly built by try and error. Most of them wouldn't get past modern day building codes either because of their static. Some still puzzle the collective architecture society because they can't figure out just WHY those things didn't come crumbling down ages ago.

        Try and error is where true innovation is. There are simply some things you cannot calculate because they are, well, new. Nobody has done it before and there are no numbers to rely on. The example of that Saturn V rocket was already p

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        It's fine to design that way as long as you then rigorously validate the design before building.

    • We often made jokes about that even back at my university days (engineering).

      Engineers always spend lots of time for exact calculations, just to add a roughly estimated error margin that dwarves the exact calculation into insignifficance anyway. They calculate die diameter of a nylon thread needed to lift a brick to the 5th decimal, but in the end use a rope to lift it anyway!

      • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:29PM (#43068975) Journal

        I watched the jaw of a physicist hit the table in a design meeting where I claimed that I was confident in my engineering model to "single digit percent" errors. The director of engineering was pleased with the answer, and my friend asked me afterwards what I meant and how that could possibly be good. I told her that we only have a certain level of confidence in the materials and fabrication capability, and that the environmental loads were really just a guide - anything closer then 5-10% was probably wasting effort for no actual increase in performance.

        This is an appropriate place for this quote:

        "Structural engineering is the art of modeling materials we do not wholly understand into shapes we cannot precisely analyze so as to withstand forces we cannot properly assess in such a way that the public at large has no reason to suspect the extent of our ignorance." -Dr. A. R. Dykes

      • Good Engineers understand significant digits/error margins and safety factors.

        They also understand that their own time is another resource that should be optimized.

        What you describe sounds more like an Engineering student.

    • by Fnord666 ( 889225 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @02:07PM (#43070247) Journal

      Trial & Error Works Often better than calculations.

      Unless you're designing parachutes.

      • by isorox ( 205688 )

        Trial & Error Works Often better than calculations.

        Unless you're designing parachutes.

        Depends who's testing them

  • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @11:52AM (#43068387) Journal

    I understand his invention.

    What I don't understand is how plastic filament is so expensive. Surely this stuff is already produced on an enormous scale with machines that have a tiny amortized cost.

    Anyone got any ideas?

    • by chill ( 34294 )

      Supply and demand, the same with everything else

      This gadget will essentially take the control of the supply of the refined product (filament) out of the hands of the middlemen. It allows the end-users to refine the raw material themselves.

    • by Hentes ( 2461350 )

      The same reason normal printer cartridges are expensive.

      • This. I see people all over the internet waiting for the $100 3d printer. Don't worry, we'll get them. But be prepared to pay with your body for the model and support materials.
    • Plastics are primarily made from petrochemicals - i.e. petroleum-based, so their prices fluctuate with the price of oil.
  • by tekrat ( 242117 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @11:52AM (#43068391) Homepage Journal

    Unfortunately, "Common Sense" is in short supply. It's actually the rarest element of all, and very likely, this gentleman succeeds where others fail because he applies common sense.

    There are a lot of very smart, clever people out there, but not that many smart, clever people with common sense. Trust me on this.

    • Unfortunately, common sense is often present in clever, smart people when they start to learn, it's our school system that usually quickly strips them from it.

      Think back to your school days. How long did it take you to figure out to forego common sense and ponder what the teacher wants to hear? Those who manage to struggle through school somehow yet retain their common sense are usually the few that can save a little bit of theirs.

      Sadly, we rarely think of people who had bad grades as "clever" and "smart".

    • Your common sense is unqualified.

      He didn't use common sense. He used his 65 years of experience, knowledge of materials and methods, and trial and error. Which is his expertise.

      Which of his neighbours could do the same?

      The reason I am pointing out the obvious, is because the general term of common sense more often than not implies a tacit denouncement of expert knowledge, and is usually pulled out to justify a particular ignorance and save face. In this case, I expect it's good old modesty however.

      I am a ph

  • by chill ( 34294 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:03PM (#43068557) Journal

    Can anyone tell me how well ABS recycles? I'm thinking about something like this extruder, but instead of using bulk pellets, dicing up old projects and tossing them in the hopper. Recycle the plastic to make new stuff.

    • I can't see why it wouldn't work. The extruder just appears to be melting the pellets and shaping them as filament, then the filament is melted in a 3d printer to make an object, I can't see why you couldn't repeat unless there's some chemical in the ABS that becomes weaker with each melt and set cycle.

      • Re:Recycling ABS? (Score:4, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:18PM (#43068787)

        Thermoplastics tend to degrade slightly each time they're processed, generally losing strength. In industry regrind is mixed with virgin material before reuse. Most polymer manufacturers suggest maximum regrind levels on their datasheets. Usually it's 25-50%, but for non critical applications you can happily use 100% regrind.

    • Already on the market! Just at a higher price point since it needs a grinder in addition to the heater extruder that he has, plus it is sold assembled and for a profit! []
  • by ArcadeMan ( 2766669 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:09PM (#43068645)

    One of the thing that makes a good 3D printer filament is a perfectly round one with a constant diameter. I'm guessing it was two requirements of the contest but the author was too lazy to put a link on the "Desktop Factory Competition" text.

    Yes I can search "Desktop Factory Competition", but so will 500 other people. I'm not being lazy, I'm saying one person should have worked 5 seconds more to write the post instead of making 500 people waste 2 seconds. It's basic mathematics.

  • by schneidafunk ( 795759 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:48PM (#43069251)
    I am interested in buying a 3D printer. Does anyone have experience / recommendations? The cheapest I have seen is $500 at [] but I'm curious if it is worth spending more for a 'higher quality' printer.
    • The Printrbot is cheaper and from the videos I've seen on YouTube, it seems to work just fine.

      • Thank you for the recommendation. I looked it up and it seems that solidoodle is still cheaper. For $500, you get 6"x6"x6" and a power supply, versus printrbot which is 4"x4"x4", does not include a power supply but does come with 1lb of filament.
    • Make magazine seems to have made a comparative review of the hobby market 3D printers recently. It is available here []. I don't know if it's any good, but I am considering buying it because I am also looking for a 3D printer.
    • by smellsofbikes ( 890263 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @02:39PM (#43070655) Journal

      I am interested in buying a 3D printer. Does anyone have experience / recommendations? The cheapest I have seen is $500 at [] but I'm curious if it is worth spending more for a 'higher quality' printer.

      Figure out what you want to print. There's a fairly large variation in build area, so if you're wanting to print stuff the size of textbooks you're going to want a larger printer. Likewise, most extrusion printers have a minimum print resolution in the 0.5mm or thereabouts area, so if you want fine detail you may be wasting your money on an extrusion-type printer. Printers with better resolution are usually photolithography-based and an order of magnitude more expensive, at which point a commercial print service like shapeways seems a lot more attractive.
      With any extrusion-type printer, I think the most important item is that it's popular, because you're going to spend time debugging and adjusting and generally fussing around with it; if you get a snazzy brand-new design you're the beta tester. If you get something that has three years of hundreds of people working with it, all the problems you can encounter have already been encountered and dealt with.
      If you want to get more printer for less money you can build it yourself: there are a variety of plans where you buy a printed set of parts, source all the structural parts yourself, and make your own. What I said above about finding one where design and implementation issues are well-known and there's a support community in place goes double for this option.

      I strongly recommend that you only start down the 3d printer path if you have projects for which you already have need for printed items; if you get one just because it's the hip thing to do for geeks, you're likely to be wasting your money. With that said, once you have one, you suddenly start printing a whole lot of things you never thought you would, because you can: I have friends who print live animal traps, plumbing parts, and light bulb fixture components now that they have 3d printers.

      • I want to print custom chess pieces, and am more interested in the finished product, than tinkering around with getting the printer to work. I am willing to pay more for a working usable printer right out of the box. Do you have any recommendations based on those requirements?
        • Unfortunately, I don't have any experience with ready-to-print extrusion-type 3d printers, just DIY ones, and the ready-to-print photolithography printers I've worked with, I can't recommend anyone purchasing.

          If you're thinking about making chess pieces for standard-sized boards, that's going to be at the edge of the resolution an extrusion-type printer can do, so in any case I'd recommend finding someone/a hackerspace with a printer that has a 0.5mm or 0.3mm nozzle and seeing what their prints look like, t

    • In addition to having an idea of what you'd use it for, I'd like to offer the following advice regarding how much to spend / what to buy:

      How much work are you willing and able to do yourself?

      The more effort you're willing to put into making the machine, the less expensive it's likely to be. Right now, the cheapest machine I'm aware of that's not total junk is the Prusa i3 ("Box frame" version) which you can stick together for under US$500 if you're savvy about where you buy parts from and you're handy with

  • by Fnord666 ( 889225 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @02:14PM (#43070361) Journal
    A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He descended a bit more and shouted, "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don't know where I am."

    The woman below replied, "You're in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You're between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude."

    "You must be an engineer," said the balloonist. "I am," replied the woman, "How did you know?"

    "Well," answered the balloonist, "everything you told me is, technically correct, but I've no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I'm still lost. Frankly, you've not been much help at all. If anything, you've delayed my trip."

    The woman below responded, "You must be in Management." "I am," replied the balloonist, "but how did you know?"

    "Well," said the woman, "you don't know where you are or where you're going. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise which you've no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it's my fault."

    • Is it normal for people to use hot air balloons to meet people out in the middle of the ocean or just is it a manager thing?
  • Great to hear at that age, he still inventing stuff...

  • by tyrione ( 134248 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @04:06PM (#43071649) Homepage
    spent 5 years at The University of Utah studying engineering? Sorry, but you learn that in your freshman year. Great story, but that part is laughable. As a Mechanical Engineering graduate '93 from WSU I know what the hell I'm talking about, just like a person above me claiming the guy is lying.
  • by hackus ( 159037 ) on Monday March 04, 2013 @06:23PM (#43073343) Homepage

    He decided he didn't want to take that route, and tinkered instead.

    Although I do not recommend that, as just a little knowledge of Mathematics can save you a great deal of time and effort in engineering activities of all types, including software. I can see why he never finished college.

    So, although I am similar in that I personally refuse to get any degree because:

    1) You are you are forced to have a bank involved if you want to be educated.
    2) You are put into a institution, like other crazy people and forced to think exactly the same way, and if you do not you are considered a failure.
    3) You are not required to produce a solution to any problem in your community or society to earn this degree, only provide a solution for corporation and human resource departments to screen others who are not in on the Ponzi scheme of banking. (See #1, rinse and repeat.)

    With that being said though, I do attend UW-Madison every once in awhile just to make sure I am not totally cynical, just mostly cynical. :-)

    But I already have my "degree" in my opinion as I have my own professional practice, I feed myself with the solutions I come up with that people pay me to solve their computing problems and all the time I am competing with B.S., M.S., and PhD's for the same customers. (Mostly winning.)

    With the exception I have a nice tidy net worth and no debts far below and above most of these people.

    The few jobs I have applied for in my career, most people ask me how is it possible you accomplished all of these things?
    (Most seem downright annoyed too...)

    To which I reply, "I am not very smart really. Just everyone else is extremely stupid that go to Universities." ;-)


  • I have designs for safety related equipment used by the industry for almost 20 years before I got around to completing a degree.

    One of my favorite tests was to use a 220Kg hammer (on a pendulum)to smash the competitions stuff against an anvil. Then I made sure my stuff took at least twice as much swing to break, while have fewer, less expensive parts. Fail fast and often, then figure it out.

    And those items are still used today.

    Because I listened. Both to engineering instructors (with over 250 hour to gradu

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