From customizable figurines to prosthetics, 3D printing has revolutionized the way we build and manufacture things. However, nobody has ever attempted what Dutch designer Joris Laarman hopes to do - Use the technology to "print" a pedestrian bridge exactly where it will live - Over one of Amsterdam's old city canals.
The artist's company MX3D has spent the past few years perfecting the technology by partnering with US design software company Autodesk, Dutch construction company Heijmans, and many others. The team's first breakthrough came in 2014 when they developed a printing machine that uses quick-drying resin. Now, they could print 3D structures and on any surface, regardless of inclination and smoothness. What made the technology even more powerful was that it could be used with molten metals.
Thanks to the development MX3D can do what Laarman had always dreamt about - Take the printing process "outside the box." What this means is that instead of creating parts of the bridge and then assembling them over the canal, MX3D plans to use industrial multi-axis robots with built-in welding heads to "print" the pedestrian walkway over the canal.
Laarman says that as the robotic arms print sections of the intricately patterned bridge using molten steel, aluminum, bronze or copper, they will be bound in place by the welding heads. When done with the section, the "construction" crew will move forward to the next phase with no human intervention.
Simple as it sounds, building the radical "out-of-the-box" 3-D printing construction robots was no easy task. The team endured several setbacks including an exploded welding machine, stuck up nozzles and various software glitches. They also had to experiment with several metals and welding techniques to see what would hold up the best. But they persevered and are now conducting final tests by using the robots to 3-D print works of art like a bench for display at New York City's Friedman Benda Gallery.
While these projects will help fix any last-minute glitches, the ultimate test will come in the fall of 2017. That's when Laarman will position the robots on the opposite banks of a yet to be named Amsterdam canal, hit the print button and walk away. If all goes well, within two months, the small stretch of water will be accessible via a beautiful intricately designed 24-feet long bridge sturdy enough to support regular foot traffic.
If successful, the technology could open up some incredible possibilities and possibly revolutionize the construction industry. As to why Laarman picked a bridge for his first project? The artist and visionary believes that if the robots can 3-D print a bridge over water in mid-air, they can "construct" anything - perhaps even skyscrapers!