3-D Printing Robots Will Build a Bridge in Amsterdam

By Carl Engelking | June 15, 2015 3:24 pm
An conceptualization of MX3D's printers in action. (Credit: MX3D)

An conceptualization of MX3D’s printers in action. (Credit: MX3D)

A 3-D printer that makes steel structures appear out of thin air will try its hand at building — wait, printing — a pedestrian bridge.

MX3D is a Netherlands-based start-up that researches and develops 3-D printing technologies. Later this year the company is planning its most ambitious project yet: Using 3-D printers to construct a bridge over a canal in the heart of Amsterdam.

Build Me a Bridge

The MX3D team essentially takes everything you know about 3-D printing and turns it on its head. The traditional process would be this: Printers build objects from the bottom up by applying layer after layer of plastic goop from dispenser that shuttles back and forth along a horizontal plane. The end product has telltale layers that sort of resemble a topographic map.

This is not how MX3D printers work. Instead, the MX3D-Metal printer builds structures by ejecting small amounts of molten steel through a welding nozzle at the end of a 6-axis robotic arm — it can craft objects from any angle, rather than simply along a horizontal plane. As molten metal flows through the nozzle, it quickly sets, which allows the printer to produce straight lines, spirals or any other shape for that matter, out of thin air.

“3D printing like this is still unexplored territory and leads to a new form language that is not bound by additive layers. This method makes it possible to create 3D objects in almost any size and shape,” wrote MX3D on its website.

You can get an up-close look at the metal printer below:

A New Frontier

For their bridge, the team plans to use two teams of two robots. The teams would start on opposite sides of the canal and build until they meet in the middle, constructing their own supports along the way while moving forward on movable platform bases.

The final design of the bridge and its exact location are still to be determined, but construction is expected to begin in September.

The project is about much more than just a bridge; it could serve as a glimpse into what future construction sites might look like. Rather than workers in hard-hats and neon yellow vests, autonomous 3-D printers might be the new norm. If we can 3-D print a bridge, Gizmodo’s Maddie Stone points out, why not build a skyscraper with 3-D printing cranes? The MX3D team seems to agree with the broader impact their bridge project could have, as they state on the project website:

This bridge will show how 3D printing finally enters the world of large-scale, functional objects and sustainable materials while allowing unprecedented freedom of form. The symbolism of the bridge is a beautiful metaphor to connect the technology of the future with the old city, in a way that brings out the best of both worlds.

Although MX3D has tested their bridge-printing robots on smaller scales, they’ll likely face a host of new challenges once the project gets started. Their bots will have to contend with irregular terrain, changing weather conditions and other factors that are typically controlled in the lab.

We’ll just have to wait and see if MX3D’s bridge leads to new possibilities for the technology, or if they simply ended up building a bridge to nowhere.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
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  • TLongmire

    Without the slightest doubt 3-D printer are the future of construction and manufacturing. The only question is will the technology be nurtured or obstructed.

  • Frankie Jax

    I was thinking of housing as I was reading it and then they mentioned sky scrapers….brilliant. They need to send these to mars and the Moon to build housing for astronauts aswell

  • http://iamyou.com Iamyou

    Discover’s Newsletter
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    • Desiree125632

      Start freelancing from your home a­nd receive an extra pay-check on weekly basis… By completing basic online work on your PC… I work three h daily, 5 days every week an­­d I receive thousand bucks each wee­k…

  • josh80

    It’s actually quite beautiful!

  • Luke101

    Amazing, and Beautiful to watch.

  • Ron Aglund

    This is the technology to build a space elevator.

    • http://godsnotwheregodsnot.blogspot.com/ Tatarize

      To date nanotubes are the only material we have with the required strength to weight to be able to be made into a space elevator. And even then directionally we need a pretty giant and heavy weight on one end, in geosync orbit to make this work. We’d really want to make the tether on Earth, send it to a really heavy thing in geosync orbit and then just drop the end to the surface. None of which would require 3d printing as best as I can tell. Though if we could 3d print nano-tube and carbon lattices it would be pretty epic for other reasons, but for now, those technologies have nothing to do with each other. Beyond a doubt, you could not make a space elevator out of steel.

      • Ron Aglund

        Oh no doubt that it won’t be steel but some form of carbon structure but this is a technology that could be used to build the elevator that could start at the ground, work it’s way up and could even link up with object in orbit. No issues with life support, scaffolding, the insane construction risks etc. These are resolved by using a 3d printer.

        • http://godsnotwheregodsnot.blogspot.com/ Tatarize

          The elevator itself could be made of anything, so long as it can withstand space. It would be far better to simply build it with the best tech because the weight there doesn’t matter that much. You really can’t start from the ground unless you’re launching the whole thing from a rocket ship or something.

          I think you misunderstand how a space elevator works. The spinning of the earth is what keeps it up. You have a tether from geosync orbit to the ground. And just climb that tether with various machines. You can’t build it from the ground because until you reach orbit and have the spinning of the object on the tether counter-act gravity you have to contend with gravity. Basically unless one end is already in orbit. the whole thing is going to fall down. You can drop a rope from orbit, you cannot push a rope into space.

          • https://www.linkedin.com/profile/public-profile-settings?trk=prof-edit-edit-public_profile Max Fagin

            “The elevator itself could be made of anything”

            In practice, that is not true. Trying to build a terrestrial elevator out of steel (shown below in red) would requires the tether to taper to the width of the universe by the time is reached geosynchronous altitude in order to be self supporting. You can’t build something that need to be wider than the universe.

            Trying to make it out of kevlar (shown below in green), and it would still taper to the 500 km wide at its center. You can’t construct something like that, there isn’t enough petroleum products on Earth.

            The weight (more specifically, the strength/weight ratio) ABSOLUTELY matters in space elevator construction. It is the material property that we most care about. If you want the elevator to be made from a manageable amount of material (i.e. <10000 tonnes) it has to be carbon nanotubes (shown below in blue). There really is no other option.

          • http://godsnotwheregodsnot.blogspot.com/ Tatarize

            The elevator. The cable basically only carbon nanotubes could work for. But, the actually thing moving up and down doesn’t matter much unless it weighs something massive.

  • Nate Richardson

    That is very cool! Imagine the possibilities of printing skyscrapers, or quick repairs on buildings with this printer. This could be very useful of speeding up production of mass quantity items. I think this will be used allot more in the near future and It would be cool to see one of these print an airplane frame.

  • Camp Huntington

    It may be the future of construction, but what about the people it displaces from work. We are nearning a point where humans can be replaced, and machines will build themselves! I believe that Steven Hawking has issued a warning about that. On a slightly more fanciful line, don’t forget about the Terminator!

    • Ray Franklin

      When machines can do all the labor to meet basic human needs, we can totally relax. Who needs jobs or an economy when machines do all the work? Not that we all need to be idle. There are still plenty of opportunities for discovery and exploration in our small corner of the universe.

  • JR

    How does this technique deal with expansion and contraction of the steel as temperature changes (thinking by analogy with railway lines) ? I can see it making a decorative footbridge for light use, which is cool anyway, but is it scalable to bear load without buckling or cracking ?

  • Matt Schlutz

    Holy awesomeness this is cool. We have a 3d printer in office works in melbourne where they take a picture and reproduce you… the cleaner way

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