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Dutch companies collaborate on 3D printed bridge

A collaborative effort between Dutch design, software and construction firms will see what is thought to be the world’s first 3D-printed bridge come to life.

A collaborative effort between Dutch design, software and construction firms will see what is thought to be the world’s first 3D-printed bridge come to life. In March 2014, Chinese company WinSun Decoration Design Engineering successfully constructed a set of 10 single story 3D-printed houses in less than 24 hours.

This year, WinSun further demonstrated its proficiency with the technology by completing a five-storey apartment block in Suzhou Industrial Park.

At the end of June, the United Arab Emirates National Innovation Committee also announced plans to build the first fully functional 3D-printed building. The proposed office block, and all its internal furniture, detailing and structural components, will be constructed using 3D printer technology.

Three-dimensional printer technology is gaining momentum around the world. Not only have its capabilities been demonstrated around the globe, but it is being used increasingly in infrastructure design and construction.

Jan van de Ven, Manager – Business Development at Dutch construction services firm Heijmans, says 3D printing is opening up a wide array of possibilities for the construction industry.

“The basis of 3D printing is that it’s used to make smaller models, usually for architectural purposes,” says Mr. van de Ven. “In construction we’ve started working with 3D models more and more.

“With traditional construction you always use the elements that are standard and readily available,” he adds. “The benefits of 3D printing are that you can create the same designs but using fewer resources in a cost-effective and more sustainable way.”

Mr. van de Ven asserts that printing in 3D, particularly on a larger scale, is having a huge impact in the design market, and Heijmans has experienced this first-hand.

The company is collaborating with Dutch designer Joris Laarman, start-up company MX3D, Autodesk, sponsors and public partners to design and build what is possibly the world’s first 3D-printed bridge. “[A bridge] was one of the first things imaginable [MX3D] could create,” says Mr. van de Ven. “This type of technology has become a quality product, and it is really emerging.”

The project is a mix of technical robotics and contemporary art, with designer Joris Laarman providing artistic input on the design. MX3D on the other hand, specialises in robotic 3D print technology and has developed the software and technology to make the ambitious project a reality.

“[MX3D] were really used to creating chairs,” Mr. van de Ven says, referencing the design firm’s work in creating metal 3D-printed furniture. “They said: ‘We can do much more than this’.”

MX3D pioneered 3D-printed metal – a technique that employs specially programmed robot arms to print the material. Mr. van de Ven says that the robot, in its most abstract or basic form, is a type of welding tool.

A typical 3D printer will produce a printing based on 3D models and works in a conventional way. “3D printers are run on a frame that moves in two axes and what they do is add layers,” he says. “With this technique, they use a robot and print using six axes in 3D.

“The special thing about the robots is that they are used to carrying out routine tasks. They’re usually quite hard to program.”

However, MX3D has developed software that allows the team to actively assign a new task to the robot. “You can give it any task very easily,” Mr. van de Ven adds.

This innovation overcomes some creative hurdles. Not only can the robots print metals, plastics and combinations of materials in virtually any format, they can undertake small and large projects, with the ability to print even in mid-air.

With this technology on hand, the team at MX3D set its sights higher and chose a steel pedestrian bridge as its first foray into larger infrastructure projects. “The team at MX3D is from the art world but they saw the potential of this technique,” says Mr. van de Ven. “They needed more knowledge to support them and came to us to help them with the bridge design.”

He explains that the first step in the ambitious project was to work on several iterations and input parameters for the robots using Autodesk software. With the appropriate programming, the robots can print from several points and move quite quickly.

While the momentous task of programming the robots to construct the bridge has been long, the preliminary design stages of the project are now complete. Construction of the bridge itself began in October.

Mr. van de Ven explains that the structure will be like any other bridge and can be used by pedestrians and cyclists alike. It will be between two and three metres wide and is proposed to span one of Amsterdam’s iconic canals.

Two or three robots will construct the bridge in parts in a shed in Amsterdam before it will be placed at the proposed site on the canal.

While 3D printing technology is very much in the experimental stages, Mr. van de Ven says that the potential for the technology in the realm of construction is big.

“There might be potential to 3D print all kinds of construction parts,” he says.

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