Is 3D Printing the Future of Infrastructure?


The future of 3D printing is on display in Amsterdam, where robotic arms are constructing a canal bridge.

MX3D, a Netherlands-based 3D-printing robotics company, has embarked on an ambitious project to create the world’s first 3D printed bridge. Working together with Autodesk and construction company Heijmans, the company will realize designer Joris Laarman’s vision for spanning a canal in Amsterdam. The bridge is being designed by Joris Laarman, using the Autodesk software and will be built across the Amsterdam Canal.

MX3D has developed computer-guided robotic arms with a tipped end that can produce a molten metal material that is quickly set in place, thus allowing the robotic arm to create any design out of thin air. The multi-axis robots will heat the metal to 1,500 degrees Celsius as the Autodesk software fashions the metal together into the programmed design.

“We now use our own intelligent software to operate these machines,” said Joris Laarman, “so they can print very complex metal shapes which can differ each time”.

The plans for the construction of this pedestrian bridge include four robotic arms simultaneously printing the metal structure as the robots autonomously move across it. The construction of the bridge is expected to begin in September of this year, and though it will be built across the Amsterdam canal, the specific location is yet to be determined.

3D printing is evolving and new designs are constantly being developed as creations such as weapons, musical instruments, clothes, and even operable vehicles have already been printed. Substantial progress has been made in the 3D printing industry and now more than ever with the introduction of infrastructure printing such as houses, apartments, and bridges.

3D printing of infrastructure is done using large-scaled printers that produce a special concrete and composite mixture that is thicker than standard concrete. The additional strength enables the concrete to be self-supporting as it sets. The concrete structures can be curved and hollowed, allowing for less material to be used with fewer design constraints. This development could not only benefit the construction process but also the price level for housing. With less labor and material expenses, this type of printing could revolutionize the construction industry.

WinSun Decoration Design Engineering, a Chinese company based in Shanghai, has already printed ten small houses, a five-story apartment building, and an elegant villa. In March of 2014, WinSun printed ten small houses in just 24 hours. Each one of their 3D printed houses is 200 square feet and cost approximately $5,000 to print.

WinSun recently completed the printing of a five-story residential apartment complex as well as a 1,100 square meter villa. Since the construction of their first villa, WinSun has received ten pre-orders from customers. Each villa costs approximately $160,000 to print and WinSun expects to fulfill all of these orders. Their super-sized printer is 6.6 meters high, 10 meters wide and 150 meters long. WinSun says that their machine can operate at 10 times the efficiency as traditional construction and also has the potential to reduce energy consumption by up to 70%. Yes, these are 3D printed structures, but they were not printed complete. Each part is printed and carried to the location where it is then constructed on site with conventional equipment and processes.

Back in Amsterdam, designer Joris Laarman discussed the vision for his intricate construction process:

“I strongly believe in the future of digital production and local production, in ‘the new craft.’ 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.”

Laarman’s project, along with many other 3D printing ventures that are currently being developed, represent yet another disruptive technology entering the world of manufacturing in the 21st Century. Companies all over the world are engaging with this innovative shift, and for the construction industry in particular, 3D printing is becoming a game-changing player.

See also: