The top floor of the tallest building in downtown Berkeley, California, is windowed on all sides with views of manmade creations: the Golden Gate Bridge, UC Berkeley's Sather Tower, houses perched on hillsides.
But the most interesting window here in the offices of SkyDeck - an incubator and accelerator for the university's startups - is inside a small room, on the face of a 400-pound metal box. Behind its plexiglass is a vending machine that can make almost anything you want.
Will Drevno stands in front of the machine and looks at it. Drevno is a student at Berkeley and cofounder of Dreambox, a company he started with recent graduates Richard Berwick and David Pastewka to make 3D printing more familiar and accessible to the masses.
The company's first product? The vending machine that dispenses 3D-printed creations, also called the Dreambox.
He picks a design sent to him by an architect and feeds it to the printer as a demonstration. The printer's spinneret nozzle moves like a silent insect, unspooling hot plastic threads and slowly giving definition to an object, layer by layer.
Drevno senses the fascination: "People love watching it print. It's like watching a video game," he says.
The table next to him is a scrapyard for test prints, including a small, hard triquetra model made from blue biodegradable PLA plastic and a flexible iPhone case that got warped in an experiment in printing with nylon.
Fraternities and sororities have requested custom shot glasses; Dreambox doesn't frown on anything except weapon parts. Drevno favors more practical creations. His favorite request so far is a bottle opener.
The machine stands nose-level beside him as he quickly explains how it works. First, someone uploads an object's 3D blueprint taken from a computer-aided design (CAD) program. You can do this online or, soon, by plugging a USB drive right into the vending machine, using a touchscreen to navigate.
If you don't have a custom project on hand, you can choose from a collection of popular designs, like a replica of Sather Tower. When the printer completes an object, an arm nudges it off the included MakerBot Replicator's build surface, where it slides down a chute and into a private locker.
All of this takes about an hour and a half, and you get a text message with a code to unlock the item when it's ready for you to pick up. A single print typically costs around $15, and it can be as large as a loaf of bread.
How it started
The Dreambox founders met two years ago in a mobile app development class and competition at Berkeley.
"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."