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3D Printing Robot Will Build An Entire Bridge

In a move that takes 3D printers into the real world, a 3D printing robot will make a bridge over a canal in Amsterdam.
Disney's Tomorrowland Past And Present: A Celebration
Disney's Tomorrowland Past And Present: A Celebration
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Paul Simon broke it off with Art Garfunkel and went solo, but soon I expect he could start singing Bridge Over Troubled Waters with this robot from MX3D. The robot, without any need for temporary supports or humans, will build a 24-foot long pedestrian bridge across a canal in Amsterdam.

If all goes according to plan it could usher in an exciting new era of 3D-printed infrastructure.

As seen in this video, MX3D has been experimenting with what is essentially "drawing in midair" with an additive printing technique that gets rid of the printer bed we're used to seeing with 3D printers.

The robot is basically a multi-axis industrial robot outfitted with a 3D printing arm.

It will literally cross the bridge as it builds it -- inching across it on the rails it just finished printing. The bridge will be designed in a new Autodesk software that not only allows the robot to understand, visualize, and print the designed bridge, but it can also adapt to the final location (which hasn't been chosen yet).

Here is a visualization of the planned project:

Assuming the project succeeds and can stand the test of time, this really ushers in the potential for a change in the way we build infrastructure products.

The two months of expected construction time is competitive. After a conversation with several engineers, I was unable to get any to commit to a time frame regarding how long it might take to design and build a pedestrian bridge like this. All said that it depends on the location, materials, and a myriad of environmental issues and details. But all agreed that the construction time was generally competitive for specifically designed bridges -- as opposed to pre-fab. And the expectation is that we can reduce construction time with more experience.

If you can assume we can build a pedestrian bridge, eventually you can imagine a group of these robots building bridges for cars. And what is a bridge except the skeleton of a building turned on its side? Why not robots that build houses or even skyscrapers from the ground up in gravity-defying maneuvers? Robots are tireless workers that can work in any weather, barring conditions that would limit the building process itself. While slower than a human, they can work for 24 hours with no safety equipment, no fear of death, and with perhaps less environmental impact.

[And here are some other things robots do that we love. Read Robots: We Love the Crazy Things They Do.]

In other words, we have a possibility of replacing all of our major construction in the world with robots equipped with 3D printers.

The designer of the bridge, Joris Laarman, said on the MX3D site, "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."

I'm not sure I see the "beautiful metaphor," but I do see beautiful potential, especially living in the Bay Area where we recently built a bridge which was billions over budget and years behind schedule.