June 24, 2015      

Robotic construction could reach new heights in Amsterdam with a 3-D-printed steel pedestrian bridge.

The bridge is an interdisciplinary effort combining the talents of designers, engineers, and scientists, said Jouke Verlinden, a professor of industrial design at Delft University of Technology.

Joris Laarman Lab is designing the bridge, which will span one of the Dutch capital’s numerous canals.

“This bridge will show how 3-D printing finally enters the world of large-scale, functional objects and sustainable materials while allowing unprecedented freedom of form,” said Joris Laarman.

Startup MX3D plans to use two robots to build the bridge, which will support them as they proceed. The company was spun out of Joris Laarman Lab to research and develop the use of 3-D printing for full-scale construction with a variety of materials, including metal and resin. MX3D will use Autodesk topology optimization software and real-time feedback for the bridge.

MX3D working on 3-D printing technology

MX3D is developing 3-D construction technology.

“The MX3D platform is a potential game changer,” said Maurice Conti, director of strategic innovation at Autodesk. “Breaking free of the traditional limitations of additive manufacturing — small-size prints and poor material performance — this technology opens up possibilities for architectural-scale, relatively low-cost, metal structures that are as complex as the designer?s imagination.”

The robots will start on the sides of the canal and gradually slide forward on the supports as they autonomously create them by “drawing” in midair. This is different from the scaffolding usually required for such construction projects.

The bridge will use a steel composite developed at Delft University of Technology that will be melted at 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,732 degrees Fahrenheit) and added a little at a time. The metal is supposed to solidify in a second and be 90 percent the strength of regular steel. The structure is expected to be about 24 feet long.

“What distinguishes our technology from traditional 3-D printing methods is that we work according to the ‘printing outside the box’ principle,” said Tim Geurtjens, chief technology officer of MX3D. “By printing with 6-axis industrial robots, we are no longer limited to a square box in which everything happens.”

“Our software translates CAD model software into welding strategies, and then translates that into the Rapid software used by ABB to tell the robot how to move,” said Geurtjens.

Unlike the repetitive tasks in traditional industrial robotics, MX3D is working with constantly changing data.

“Up until now with our project, no two pieces of information being related to the robots are ever the same, so everything we print is generative,” he said. “This could change the future of robotics.”

Opportunities for 3-D printing

“The development of 3-D printing offers diverse opportunities for our business,” said Gerard de Leede, CTO of construction firm Heijmans, which is supporting the project. “It can contribute to a safer working environment, a reduction of material use, and energy savings. It also leads to unique projects that were not imaginable until now, because we no longer depend on mass production and standard construction capability.”

Heijmans is also collaborating with DUS Architects on the 3D Print Canal House in Amsterdam. WinSun recently showed off a similar 3-D-printed house in China.

Other partners on the 3-D-printed bridge include Air Liquide, AMS, Delcam, Lenovo, STV, Within, and the Amsterdam City Council.

MX3D is working with the city of Amsterdam on choosing a site for the bridge, and a visitor center will open in September. The company said the actual printing should take only a few months, but it is still testing the design software, so the project will be completed in 2017.

While MX3D’s technology is a long way from commercialization, there is certainly demand for automation to assist with urban infrastructure. One out of nine bridges in the U.S. is “structurally deficient,” according to Forbes and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The 3-D printing industry will be worth $12 billion by 2025, predicts Lux Research.