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Skyforge, a vending machine for your 3D-printed dreams

At the University of Idaho, students can "print" practically anything they want thanks to this vending machine. "We want to be the Redbox of 3D printing," its creator says.

Remember when vending machines distributed premade goods like candy, Super Balls, and sausages? Yawn. A new kind of vending machine called SkyForge makes use of a 3D printer to sell plastic items that are only limited by the imaginations of the machine's users.

Skyforge wants to bring 3D printing to the masses. Element Robot

The invention came about when mechanical engineering graduate Chris Walker and a classmate at the University of Idaho in the town of Moscow got frustrated with their limited access to the university's 3D printers. So they did what any good mechanical engineers would do: they formed a company, Element Robot, and built their own machine.

Instead of locking it away in their dorm room, they decided to put it in the university's chem lab to allow anyone access. According to Walker, that was a smart move not only because it allows a central location for the retrieval of printed items, but because the machine itself acts as a sort of advertisement.

"It's fun because you'll have a couple of students walk by and they'll see it operating. They get drawn in and they get stuck watching it," Walker told Crave. SkyForge, which was set up last Monday, is proving popular, already garnering more than 100 users with approximately another two signing up to use the machine every hour, according to Walker.

The machine, which has a footprint of about 2.5 by 2.5 feet, can make items up to the size of a basketball from designs uploaded to Element Robot's Web site. It prints them out by squirting layers of polylactic acid (PLA) plastic onto a glass plate heated to 437 degrees. So far, Walker says, Skyforge has been used to make about a 50/50 mix of engineering bits and bobs and "fun" parts like phone cases. One student, a VW enthusiast, has used the machine to make replacement parts for the VW Beetle by printing them out, molding them in silicone rubber, and casting them in resin.

At least one instructor is also using the machine as part of his lesson plan. "We've got a professor testing prints that he would like to integrate into a class project in which students will build the hardware and software for a self-stabilizing inverted pendulum," Walker said. "He'll share some of the design files for the hardware (like an accelerometer bracket), and students will design and manufacture the rest of the hardware. Skyforge makes that a lot easier."

Designers are kept up-to-date through e-mail notifications at the beginning, middle, and end of the process, and items take 15 minutes, plus or minus, to render, depending on their size. Right now the printed component is dispensed into a pick-up bin that anyone can access. Eventually, the Element Robot team, which currently has four employees, plans to make a version that will keep the items secure until the creator arrives to pick them up.

For now, however, the inventors came up with a novel way to allay fears of theft. "We did see some students concerned that people were going to steal their parts," Walker said. "But then what we did is we just set a couple of finished parts next to the machine and they were there for a week or two and nobody stole them. So I think that fear's gone away mostly."

Another goal for a future iteration of SkyForge is to equip the machines with SD card slots, so that 3D designs could be printed on the spot.

The cost for the printed on-demand prizes in this vending machine are a bit higher than those Super Balls you could once get for a quarter.

Element Robot is charging 75 cents per cubic centimeter, with a minimum charge of $2. That would make a Super Ball about $5.60 (and it won't even bounce!). But compared with the cost and hassle involved with many university 3D printers, it's a bargain.

Element Robot marketing director James Prado says that with many 3D printers owned by the university, "you can't just have a great idea, print it out, and go pick it up. Sometimes you have to wait a week before you can get it." SkyForge aims to solves this problem by making 3D printing accessible to all students. Which means specially designed beer pong balls that give users an edge can't be far behind.

A motor mount created by a student at the University of Idaho using Skyforge. What's it for? His very own 3D printer, of course! Element Robot