Combining 3D printing technology with the convenience and accessibility of the DVD-dispensing Redbox service, student entrepreneurs at UC Berkeley have built a vending machine with a seemingly infinite selection of products.
The Dreambox, which now lives in the campus’s Etcheverry Hall, is the first fully automated 3D-printing vending machine, representing a step forward in the democratization of the still-young technology.
You can print almost any object using its touchscreen and watch said object materialize before your eyes. When the print is complete, a mechanical arm will push the object into a locked drawer for safekeeping until you pick it up. The Dreambox can print model cars, whistles and even a detailed miniature of UC Berkeley’s iconic clock tower, the Campanile.
While 3D printers have been around for years, their use is primarily restricted to academic or industrial environments. At Cal, Dreambox customers can print their own preloaded designs such as dog tags, snowflakes or cups, or choose from thousands of items on the digital design repository, Thingiverse. Customers can even bring in their own computer-aided design (CAD) files for printing.
“Some of them are useful, some of them are decorative,” says Richard Berwick, a recent graduate from the Haas School of Business and Dreambox chief technology officer.
The possibilities would be endless, if it weren’t for the 7-by-9-by-5-inch size restraints of what Dreambox can print.
In Dreambox’s office at Berkeley Skydeck, the university’s technology startup accelerator, Berwick, along with his co-founders David Pastewka, the CEO, and Will Drevno, COO, were fixing some final glitches with “Dolly,” the vending machine’s nickname.
Dolly is a large cabinet sitting on two wooden furniture dollies. She weighs more than 400 pounds and has a plexiglass face so people can watch her 3D printer in action.
A table shows off some of Dolly’s early colorful successes and some failures. There’s a red rocket ship shot glass, a yellow infinite knot and a solid plastic iPhone 5, the result of an incorrectly exported CADD file.
The largest item is an unbreakable plastic I-beam, an elongated letter-shaped object similar to steel beams used in construction, printed by engineering students testing Young’s modulus. “You can throw it on the ground if you want, it won’t break,” Berwick said. It didn’t.
Members of the campus community already have their own ideas for what they’d like Dreambox to print.
Customers have printed architectural models, items from video games and even the body and wings of a drone plane. Now the thing zips around at 4 meters per second. Fraternities and sororities have asked Dreambox to print custom shot glasses. So far, Dreambox has completed more than $1,000 in prints, and could be profitable in a matter of months if it’s used at full capacity.
Berwick said the co-founders have no plans to restrict what customers may print, except for weapons. But then Berwick recalled a 3D printing pop-up store in New York that soon turned into a “custom” sex toy shop.
“That’s not something we can say we’re necessarily OK with,” he added.
The Dreambox uses an “off-the-shelf” 3D printer, worth about $2,200, and prints from colorful spools of polylactic acid (PLA), a corn-based biodegradable plastic. So the Greeks’ custom shot glasses would be safe to drink from, at least according to the material safety data sheet, the founders said.
“If you put it in the oven, it will melt into a puddle,” Berwick says. “If you put it in the microwave, it will also melt and possibly spark.” Definitely don’t put it in the dishwasher.
In some cases, the machine’s entertainment value is almost better than the quality of its products, Pastewka said. People uninterested in the product will still watch the printer head move back and forth, back and forth. “No blinking. I’m sure I’ve done the same thing,” he said.
Berwick started a test print: a smaller, simpler model of the Campanile Tower.
The platform and printer heads whir to life as the chamber heats up. Then, 270 micron layer by 270 micron, layer at a time, our very own four-inch tall Campanile materializes. Fifteen minutes later, it’s done, but something’s not quite right. The top, which should be a perfect pyramid, is misshapen and, well, melty.
Berwick says the model was too small and the chamber too hot. A reprint might be in order.
Pastewka said the Dreambox machine on campus is just a prototype, “the first instance of what could be a lot more.”
“We’re proving something here,” he said. “A lot of people are watching us to see what happens. I’m reading an email from someone in Turkey. A lot of people have some interesting ideas what this could do. Some of them are unrealistic, but interesting.”
The Dreambox is now open for business, with print costs ranging from $3 to $15. The machine lives in Etcheverry Hall, 2521 Hearst Ave. in Berkeley.