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3D printing on demand, delivered via vending machine

Thomas Travagli | June 17, 2013
The Dreambox, a vending machine in Berkeley, California, contains a 3D printer that can print out almost anything you want: bottle openers, phone cases, or customized shot glasses, among other items.

"My relationship with 3D printing had mostly been an avoidance of it," Drevno says. He was team leader of the crew behind CalSol, a student-designed solar car that raced across Australia in 2011.

3D printing was still relatively new, and the CalSol team was competing against schools that had the then-nascent technology at their fingertips.

Without enough on-campus 3D printers to make plastic parts viable for the solar car, Drevno turned to the Internet. Online services were too slow, with printing and delivery lead times easily topping one week.

Running into these design walls was crucial to Dreambox's genesis. The natural extension of the trio's idea of a fast, low-cost option was to give themselves—and others—the convenience of a go-to 3D printing station.

As part of Dreambox, Drevno handles back-end engineering, Pastewka does front-end engineering, and Berwick specializes in hardware. After more than a year of trying to get different projects off the ground, the team built Dreambox in five weeks, writing the automation code themselves. Coincidentally, they heard about Virginia Tech's DreamVendor—a similar 3D printing vending machine—soon after they started their own project.

Where it's going
Late last March, the vending machine moved out of SkyDeck and made its first fully-functional appearance on campus inside Etcheverry Hall. The launch proved popular, and even during spring break, a number of students stopped by to try it out. Since then, word of Dreambox has spread from architects and engineers to a wider cast of students who want to experiment with 3D-printed keychains and video-game characters.

It's a novel idea that could make the technology more open to anyone curious about it and kickstart the 3D printing revolution with a network of approachable, self-contained units. "In a way, we're automating Kinko's," Drevno says.

Dreambox's next big step is to scatter its machines across the country. "Dreambox's mission is to unleash creativity and innovation by placing hyper-local automated manufacturing facilities throughout the United States," the team says on its site. To reach that goal, Drevno and the Dreambox crew are gathering customer feedback, brainstorming Dreambox's next iteration, figuring out how to get machines into malls and stores, and adding more printing material options like ABS (the same plastic used to make Lego bricks), nylon, metal, and wood.

Consumer-grade 3D printers are dropping in price, making it much more feasible to have one around the house, but it's still interesting to consider how vending machines have progressed from DVD and candy-bar cabinets to miniature factories that can make everything from intricate artwork to a copy of your face.

And for Drevno, Dreambox is an exciting way to take a new technology out of the lab and put it into the hands of more people: "We are drastically lowering the barrier of entry for people who want to be makers."

 

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