Dutch startup to 3D print bridge over canal using two robots

MX3D, a Dutch R&D startup founded by designer Joris Laarman, plans to bring additive manufacturing to a new realm: structural engineering. Here's how.

Dutch R&D startup MX3D announced plans this month to 3D print a functional steel bridge over an Amsterdam canal using two robots. Construction is slated for 2017.

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Founded by Joris Laarman, a Dutch designer who uses 3D printing to create furniture and art, the MX3D has developed an additive manufacturing method that can be used to print metal and resins in mid-air without temporary scaffoldings or support structures. Additive manufacturing is nothing new, but what is novel is MX3D's use of dexterous multi-axis industrial robots that can guide themselves while they work. In 2014, the company equipped a single-arm, six-degree-of-freedom bot from ABB with an advanced welding machine and developed software to control it. The result is a novel system that's capable of creating strong, complex structures in virtually any size or shape.

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"What distinguishes our technology from traditional 3D printing methods," says CTO Tim Geurtjens, "is that we work according to the 'Printing Outside the box' principle. By printing with 6-axis industrial robots, we are no longer limited to a square box in which everything happens. Printing a functional, life-size bridge is of course the ideal way to showcase the endless possibilities of this technique."

Aside from being just plain cool, the bridge is newsworthy because it is being printed or 'drawn' in situ, eliminating the need for a controlled manufacturing environment and opening the horizons for digital fabrication to escape maker spaces and enter the realm of large-scale, functional infrastructure projects. Construction robots that build structures beneath them would eliminate the need for human workers in some of the most dangerous jobs, such as those where long drops and falling equipment create occupational hazards.

Additive manufacturing, in which small dollops of liquid are stacked and dried to form structures, has long been a proposed alternative to traditional construction by architects and construction companies. Last January, Chinese firm WinSun 3D-printed modular concrete sections that it used to construct a large, functional house in just 24 hours, as well as a six-story apartment building.

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Because of the high stresses that bridges must withstand, it is often necessary to use steel. MX3D's technique allows it to work with steel and stainless steel, as well as other metals like aluminum, bronze, and copper. By adding small amounts of molten metal, MX3D's robots are able to print lines in mid air based on a pre-programmed design.

The bridge will be designed by Laarman using software made by Autodesk, which is partnering on the project.

"I strongly believe in the future of digital production and local production," says Laarman. "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."

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