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Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Tuesday 15 May 2012

3D Printing Vending Machines

The DreamVendor concept that has been installed at Virginia Tech got lots of positive responses as it hit the news waves recently. Pitted as an “interactive 3D printing station” for students at the university, I must confess to mixed feelings on this when I saw it: 
Of course I see the benefits of making the printers more widely available, and as a consumer concept, I think it is absolutely brilliant. I just can’t help thinking that for students in a mechanical engineering department, putting the 3D printers behind glass is self-defeating — they should be getting totally hands on with the machines and the technology. For consumers, on the other hand, plug in an SD card, follow simple instructions and hit print — spot on! 


  1. Interesting concept - seems to be powered by a gang of Makerbots?

    This is exactly the sort of thing I'd like to see the two big boys working on - automated standalone multi machines. They have the technology, just not the desire.

  2. Love the idea. It may not be too long before consumers get their hands on 3D printers themselves! I read earlier laser printers used to cost more (when they were initially released) than the cheapest 3D printer on the market today!

  3. Thanks for passing this on Rachel! I'd be happy to talk with you more about your mixed feelings. We created the DreamVendor so that we could get as many students as possible engaged with Additive Manufacturing. Our DREAMS Lab provides our Mechanical Engineers lots of opportunities to get hands-on experience with industry-scale AM technologies.

    This "behind the glass" experience was created as an entry point to the technology. All universities have trouble getting the resources necessary to ensure that all of their students have access to the latest technology, and our college of engineering (at 1200+ students in the graduating class; even our Department of Mechanical Engineering has 300 students graduate each year) is no exception.

    The great news about this experiment is that it has (thus far) worked well. We have students from all over the university (not just engineers) teaching themselves CAD so they can design and fabricate their ideas. More to the point of your post, the requests I received this semester for undergraduate research mentoring (which would provide access to the 'bigger' machines) has doubled due to the machine.


  4. I like the fact that the mechanical engineering department has employed 3D printing vending machines but it doesn't go that well when it's behind glass. It should be more openly available for hands on experience and complete curriculum guidance with instructors and equipment.

  5. Hi Chris

    Thanks for the comment here — that information, in and of itself, is really all I needed to hear to convince me!! :-) I also hear you on the resources front. As an entry level way of engaging with that many students AND non-engineering students as well - you are to be congratulated. I hope many more educational establishments pick up on this model too, and are able to roll it out. It is my belief that the kids are the key to unlocking the full potential of this tech — in terms of development and apps!

  6. Interesting how some are bothered about it being a "behind the glass" experience. Does this really matter? For 3D printing technologies to really take off what is needed are machine like this where you can turn up, stick your flash memory card in, transfer the file, choose material, finish, number of copies and hit print.

    From a technological/educational point of view seeing something in action is interesting, but it doesn't grow a market. Do consumers want to see the insides of an instant photo print machine at Boots? No. Does my office laser printer have a transparent case to let me see the innards? No.

    3D printing still suffers from a bit of a geeky outlook. I want to see 3D printers that are - literally - a cabinet, with a door, and one button or a touchscreen with a few functions. It is the result that matters here, not the technology. A part in the hand is all that matters.

    1. I've really tried to find if there was a way in which I could disagree with you more Kevin. I tried sitting down, standing on one leg and even the ancient Tibetan 'disagreement meditation' technique where you attempt to heighten your disagreement by balancing upside down over some Yak dung but I'm afraid to say that I failed.

      The deign students at Virginia tech (and everywhere else for that matter) need to know as much about manufacturing as possible. As an engineer it sends a shiver all of the way down my spine and back up again to hear somebody say that from a technological/educational point of view it doesn't 'really matter' to see how something is made.

      I think that 3D printing is taking prospective designers further and further away from getting an understanding of manufacturing techniques but that other benefits do make up for it but now your proposing that they should just submit their designs into a blank box and wait for their bits. That is exactly the sort of attitude that has created so many design graduates who are unable to design for manufacturing. It also the sort of attitude that has severely damaged the quality of engineering education programs.

      I agree with Rachel when she says that the experience for the students should be as hands on as possible. I seriously hope that the people in Virginia Tech don't listen to you.

      Oh and just for the record, I would love to see what goes on inside those photograph developing machines in Boots.

    2. You misunderstand my point Jez.

      I am talking about the mass acceptance into a mass market for 3D printing, not education of designers and engineers. To design a product effectively requires two elements - one - the empathy with the end user, to understand their needs - two - full understanding of the manufacturing methods, routes to market and costs.

      When a consumer buys a product or uses a service they are looking for a specific outcome - be that a full colour glossy print, or a cup of coffee. Whilst showing the innards of a process has value to those that need to know, most buying consumers have no interest - they just want the outcome.

      Even in the design education sector you do not need a detailed understanding of the process to get the benefit from it. many of the most "useful" AM processes are very much closed box affairs, or the build takes place inside a container of powder. What is the benefit of actually seeing a part build any more than it is to see a CNC cutting a block of steel?

      The key to exploiting a manufacturing process is understanding the LIMITATIONS of the process, and visually seeing parts getting made does not show that. What shows that is the end result.

      I have watched hundreds if not thousands of CNCS, laser cutters, water jet cutters, 3D printers, 2D plotters etc in action - and have used many as well - but in all that time I have never needed to see a part getting cut to understand the process. As a user - as a consumer and an industrial user - what you are concerned with is part quality and cost. Both are affected by ease of use of a machine - from loading, to preparing data, to changing tools etc. What most industrial users want is a push button rapid change around approach, then see the parts spitting out.

      So yes, understand the process if you need to, but let's not get hung up about actually watching 3D printers print. That is not efficient is it? Surely better to use the time to design the next iteration?

      BTW if you want to see the insides of a photo machine look here:


      Not really telling us much is it? So please, before you chastise me for having "that kind of attitude", understand the issues I am talking about. If you want to design and build 3D printers then of course you need to get inside it and understand it. Everyone else though? We just need good parts in our hands ASAP at a low cost so we can be better designers or get our 3D printed goodies from wherever.

      The 3D printer market will continue to stay bobbing along in the maker type sector or operating in the high end sector until someone has the balls to bring out a "black box" vending machine (that delivers good low cost parts consistently without endless tinkering) or a similar office based machine.

  7. It appears that this equipment is stationed in a public hallway, not a lab, so it'll probably improve its up-time to be behind glass without being tinkered with unsupervised. How do you propose the students could get anymore hands-on with a publicly used machine that is meant to serve potentially thousands of people? People can see it working, which is enough of a "gateway drug" to drum up interest in the real thing, i.e., the bigger devices in their labs.

  8. Nice read This is really amazing post about 3D printing vending machines. this is a great idea to increase the sales from a vending machine.

  9. Its a great idea of using a printer.

  10. In my opinion it is good idea for using printer.

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  12. I am really excited to see this 3D vending machine...very nice.!

  13. indeed a valuable idea on using printer.

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