he quaint, cobblestoned city of Amsterdam is about to get a modern addition: a 3D-printed footbridge.
The canal-spanning bridge, which is on track to be completed by 2017, is the brainchild of MX3D, a tech startup based in the Dutch capital. The bridge will be constructed entirely by robots that can “print” complex steel objects in midair. The autonomous bots are like mechanical, torch-wielding welders that melt together layer upon layer of steel to form a solid object, said Tim Geurtjens, MX3D’s co-founder and chief technology officer.
It’s the first time that Geurtjens and his colleagues are designing and building a bridge using this printing technology. Until now, the company was mainly using its robots to build free-form sculptures and giant pieces of furniture. But the bridge project —a collaboration between the startup, several larger companies and the Amsterdam City Council — is a chance for MX3D to show that its version of 3D printing is extraordinarily useful for making all kinds of things in the real world.
“With a lot of techniques you’re building something inside a printing volume [or container], and then when the object is done you take it out and place it somewhere,” Geurtjens told Live Science. Companies like MakerBot and Formlabs, which make desktop 3D printers, have popularized such techniques in recent years.
The real world
But MX3D’s robots aren’t anything like desktop 3D printers. The bots look like giant mechanical arms that end in a torchlike apparatus. Instead of printing objects inside a box, the bots build things out in the open. Their welding torches melt a layer of steel and then cover that layer with more molten steel, which comes from a piece of wire that is melted as it’s extruded by the robot.
Unlike most 3D printers that can only extrude materials in three different directions (forward and backward, left to right, up and down), the MX3D robots can print in all directions. The bots turn their torches sideways to print an object that juts out from the middle of a wall, for example. This ability to print in any direction, and at such a large scale, is part of what makes MX3D’s technology revolutionary, Maurice Conti, director of strategic innovation at Autodesk, told Live Science.
Autodesk is the California-based softwarecompany behind AutoCAD, a computer-aided design software that helps architects and engineers model real-world objects in the digital sphere. The company has been working closely with MX3D to develop software that allows human operators to communicate with the 3D-printing robots more successfully. Autodesk is also allowing MX3D to test out software that optimizes computer designs so that they can easily be created in the real world.
“One of the reasons that I’m so excited about this project is that it’s going to be a great demonstration of moving 3D printing into the real physical world and [away from] prototyping and tchotchkes,” said Conti, who noted that MX3D’s process is breaking down three of the biggest barriers that have kept 3D printing from becoming widespread as a full-scale manufacturing method — size, speed and cost.