Cross this bridge when you come to it.

Featured Image credit: MX3D/Adriaan de Groot.

MX3D is the Amsterdam-based R&D startup which is exploring robotic 3D printing technologies. It has recently announced the plans to 3D print a metal bridge over one of the capital’s many canals.

Majority of 3D printers available today operate within a box-like cubicle, but MX3D managed to break away from this trend by designing and developing its own 3D printing tool—a multiple-axis industrial robot which can print metals and resin, without any supporting structures. Their robot is equipped with a welding machine and is run by a complex piece of software. The latter was developed with the support of Autodesk, American software corporation specializing in 3D design, engineering, and entertainment software.

The technology developed by MX3D allows printing large and complex urban structures. To prove this, MX3D plans to be the first company to 3D print a metal bridge. The company admits that the MX3D Bridge is a research project in itself, and states that printing an intricate metal construction of this sort would be an ultimate challenge not only for the robots, but also—for the software engineers, craftsmen and designers in the team.

Although the final design of the MX3D Bridge hasn’t been presented yet, it is known that it will be developed by the Dutch artist and designer Joris Laarman of Joris Laarman Lab. His creations now belong to the public collections of more than 30 museums worldwide, among which MoMa (USA) and Centre Pompidou (France).

The exact location of the bridge is currently not known: there’s an ongoing discussion with the Municipality of Amsterdam, as well as with the local community, with regard to where the bridge would fit. MX3D expects the location to be agreed on by September 2015. At the same time a visitor center will be opened for the general public to keep up with the progress.

If all goes well, Amsterdam will become the first capital with its very own 3D printed metal bridge, and this is rather symbolic given the prowess that the Dutch have developed in bridge-building over the centuries.

NRG Magazine reached out to Tim Geurtjens, CTO and co-founder at MX3D, to talk about the upcoming bridge project, as well as about the current state of 3D printing in general. Below is our discussion.

MX3D robot busy welding. Image: MX3D/Adriaan de Groot.

MX3D robot busy welding. Image: MX3D/Adriaan de Groot.

 

NRG Magazine: What kind of maintenance will a bridge of this sort require?

Tim Geurtjens: That will basically depend on the type and quality of steel we choose to use. We are still researching different options together with the material experts, to understand what kind of steel should we use. We hope that we can find the steel that would be as maintenance-free as possible. That would be ideal. Most likely it would be stainless steel, but there is also COR-TEN steel which has a brownish look from the beginning and forms an impenetrable layer of corrosion on it. Once it rusts, it stays like that. If we use it for the bridge, it will eliminate the need for corrosion maintenance altogether.

 

“3D PRINTING EVOLVED FROM A HOBBY TO A PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITY.

IT’S GAME-CHANGING.”

 

How much would it cost to construct a bridge like this? Can you give an approximate estimate?

It’s difficult to say at the moment, because it brings us back to the question about the material, as well as to the question of final design. We are giving ourselves a year to fully test out our 3D printing technique: we want to be certain about its limitations. In the future we hope to be at least as competitive as traditional bridge building methods, and even to go lower than that.

When it comes to 3D printed objects, one common apprehension is their strength in comparison to traditionally manufactured parts. Some say that the layer-to-layer structure achieved by 3D printing is a weakness. How do you plan to overcome this challenge in case with the bridge?

With the 3D printing technique we are using, each new layer is completely fused with the layer that came before it. This is happening because we slightly melt the last printed layer before adding the new one on top of it. According to the tests that were performed, a metal object 3D printed this way is at least 90% as strong as the traditionally manufactured one. That’s why the strength of the construction is not a problem in this case.

This is how MX3D Bridge might look. Image: Joris Laarman for MX3D.

How MX3D Bridge might look. Image: Joris Laarman for MX3D.

Overall across the industry, what is the hottest material in 3D printing right now?

Metals are, without a doubt, a very hot topic in 3D printing. Basically all of them are very interesting to this industry, and many companies are looking into the possibilities of printing titanium and stainless steel, and also – medical-grade alloys, the really strong ones. That’s pretty much the topic right now. Except from that, 3D printing biological material, such as actual cells, is also a trending discussion. Some companies and universities are busy trying to 3D-print human organs, the liver for instance. All of this is very interesting, because it allows us to see how 3D printing evolved from a hobby to a professional activity. It’s game-changing.

What about multi-materials? Does MX3D plan to experiment with that?

A lot of 3D printing companies are working on multi-material printers, but most of the multi-material printers on the market don’t yet have really good durable UV resistant materials. That’s something still to be done.

We plan to experiment with it too. The advantage of our technique is that at its basis is an industrial robot and by using it you can print metal, resins, ceramic, concrete – anything that you can extrude or melt. We are exploring the practical applications of it: we are not 3D printing just for the sake of doing it, but to really understand what kind of things we can achieve.

 

“IT SEEMS LIKE MAGIC. SOMETHING IS APPEARING OUT OF NOWHERE.

IT HAS ALWAYS FASCINATED ME.”

 

Do you observe anything special in 3D printing industry in The Netherlands?

Like everywhere else, companies in The Netherlands are finally starting to see the real possibilities of 3D printing. Personally, I don’t think that 3D printing is going to overtake all other existing production techniques, but it will be a very valuable addition to those.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges of 3D printing at this point?

Three biggest problems are the costs, the materials and the building volume. Basically, the price of 3D printing is really high, if we are speaking of the quality 3D printing techniques. A few big companies own the patents and keep the prices high. On a lower level of consumer 3D printing, the materials are inferior in quality, and the building volumes are small. We, for instance, started as furniture makers and we got really frustrated with the fact that we couldn’t print a full object, like a chair, from a single good quality material and in one print. Till today, it’s either too expensive or simply impossible. There is still so much to do in 3D printing.

What are you going to do after the bridge is there?

We are looking into that. Already some foreign companies approached us with requests for 3D printing bridges abroad. But it’s also interesting to expand into different architectural constructions. Good thing about our technique is that it doesn’t matter how much decoration you would like to add, so we are not bound by that aspect.  We want to explore that side – how far can we go?

We have two main partners in the MX3D Bridge project–Autodesk and Heijmans. With Autodesk we are going to see how we can further develop the software to be able to better and easier design bridges in the future. And with Heijmans (Dutch construction company, ed.), we are going to see how we can use our 3D printing technique to eliminate the dirty and dull jobs in the construction industry.

What is it that attracts you personally in digital manufacturing?

What attracts me here is that the possibilities are almost endless. Of course, every technique has its limitations, but the 3D printing in general gives you a whole new playground where you can design and make new things. When you see a 3D printer, it seems like magic—something is appearing out of nowhere. I’ve always been fascinated by that.

 

TEXT Mariia Stolyga

 

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