Prizes vs. Patents: 83-Year-Old Wins $40k for Low-Cost 3D Printing Solution

There’s an amazing story at Time about an 83-year-old inventor named Hugh Lyman who entered a Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation-affiliated entrepreneurial competition called the Desktop Factory Competition. The problem that Lyman set out to solve is the high cost of materials for 3D printing. As the article points out, just as inkjet printers can be purchased for tens of dollars these days, the true cost of printing is in the ink. In the case of 3D printing, the same often holds true, with many printers using expensive spools of plastic filament that cost 10x more than an equivalent amount of plastic pellets. The story is a cool example of open-source goodwill:

Kaplan and the Pocket Factory‘s Bilal Ghalib, another member of the maker community, were at the Inventables office bemoaning the high cost of filament when Ghalib had a brainstorm: Why not challenge the community to create a low-cost, open-source machine which could convert pellets into filament? Smitten with the proposal, Kaplan took it to Lesa Mitchell, vice president of innovation and networks at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based institution created in 1966 by the founder of pharmaceutical company Marion Laboratories.

The best part – Lyman won and took home the $40,000 (+ hardware prizes) prize.

His first entry, the Lyman Filament Extruder, could indeed turn inexpensive plastic pellets into filament. But when Lyman entered the device in the contest in August of 2012, it was disqualified on the grounds that it failed to come in under the $250 limit for parts; he hadn’t accounted for the cost of a few parts he’d fabricated himself.

So he returned to his drawing board and came up with the Lyman Filament Extruder II. “It’s my first machine with a few little parts changed,” he says. “I resubmitted it, and it worked. It worked great.” The judges agreed and declared him as the winner.

More importantly, his invention could really push low-cost 3D printing forward. But consider – Lyman could possibly have patented this technology. It just proves that a prize-based incentive model is another method to spur innovation – in fact, the competition is what made him try to invent something in the first place. It is worth remembering that while patents are extremely important to incentivizing innovation, there are alternatives that may work well in certain situations. We’ll talk more about prizes, grants, tax credits, patents, and novel incentives in the context of 3D printing in the weeks to come.

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